Hotel Unions Relent; Want Jobs Back

Confronted with hundreds of layoffs, the leader of a hotel workers’ federation on Thursday re­quested that the luxury hotels allow fired workers back on the job and let the Ministry of Social Affairs decide the contentious issue of collecting and disbursing a service charge.

Cambodia Tourism and Service Workers Federation President Ly Korm asked the Arbitration Coun­cil to delay rulings that would open the door for court proceedings to settle the long-running dispute, and called on the six hotels in ques­tion to rehire hundreds of workers who have been fired since last month’s  strike.

“The vital thing is that the workers want to go back to work and mediate a service charge while they are working,” said Ly Korm, who said the hotels’ strategy in negotiating with the unions was one of suffocation.

“Their strategy has been very effective,” Ly Korm said. “If my family is out of a job, what can I do?”

The federation, which has insisted it would not back down on the service charge issue, changed its tack as the unions face a court system, where judges last month called the strike illegal and paved the way for layoffs.

Hundreds of workers who participated in last month’s strike have already been fired, and four hotels have pending court cases that could result in further jobs cuts.

If accepted by the hotels, the federation’s request will hand the conflict back to the Ministry of Social Affairs to issue a prakas, or ministerial directive, on the service charge, which has been the main point of the dispute.

The hotels did not reply immediately to the request Thursday.

Ly Korm said he will ask the council today to suspend all hearings on the six hotels involved in the dispute—Sofitel Royal Angkor Hotel, Hotel InterContinental, Hotel Cambodiana, Sunway Hotel, and Raffles-owned Hotel Le Royal and Grand Hotel D’Angkor.

The ministry welcomed Ly Korm’s proposal Thursday, and an adviser to Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng asked the hotels to comply.

“We are very happy to hear that the workers may go back to work. The hotels should allow them to go back,” Ker Soksidney said.

The ministries of social affairs and tourism ordered hotels to collect the charge and disburse it to workers in a joint letter last month, but many hotels say they will comply only if the demand comes in the form of a prakas.

The hotels customarily collected the 10 percent charge but dropped it in recent months when unions demanded thta it go to the workers. The hotels argue that they paid the charge to workers in the form of bonuses and benefits, and that business won’t support the unions’ requests.

The labor law dictates that the service charge go to the workers, but does not say that hotels are required to collect it. The issue erupted in strikes at seven luxury hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in the run-up to the Khmer New Year holiday.

The Arbitration Council—an independent body formed to deal with labor disputes—was set to rule on four hotel cases Monday if last-ditch efforts at mediation this week fail. That ruling would be non-binding, and Ly Korm expected the hotels to drag the dispute into the courts.

The threat of being fired has apparently dealt a major blow to the fledgling union federation, whose 2,000 members organized themselves less than a year ago. Wages at luxury hotels are considerably higher than in most sectors, meaning that many workers support their extended families.

“We are sure that the Arbitration Council will rule in our favor [that the service charge be collected and disbursed to workers], but what will happen if the hotels do not comply with the decision?” Ly Korm said. “Then all the workers will be hungry, with no money.”

Those concerns are real for workers such as 29-year-old Vuth Panha, who was laid off by Le Royal after the strike and lost his $50 monthly wage. The Raffles hotels have together fired more than 300 workers since the strike.

“It’s very difficult to find a job right now to earn that much money. I might get a new job, but it won’t be the same amount of money,” Vuth Panha said this week.

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