Ratanakkiri provincial officials on Wednesday finally held a previously delayed meeting with the heads of the province’s solidarity groups to inform them that the groups had to clear out of the state-owned rubber plantations they have been operating since the 1980s, officials said.
The remnants of former worker collectives, Ratanakkiri’s 34 solidarity groups had been ordered to vacate the plantations last year by the Ministry of Agriculture. However, group chiefs—who the government and rights groups say have been exploiting their workers—have refused to leave, claiming the ministry order was a fake.
Chhe Chan, principal representative for the solidarity group chiefs, said by telephone Wednesday that the groups had met with provincial officials led by acting Provincial Governor Chey Sayoeun and were told that the ministry’s order to clear out was indeed real and would be put into effect.
He added, however, that he did not attend the meeting, as he is hiding in Phnom Penh to avoid arrest over an Oct 15 confrontation with police that saw a truckload of rubber resin set ablaze.
Chhe Chan said the groups were told they must now register to become employees of the Tai Seng Rubber Company if they want to continue working on the plantations.
Tai Seng was granted a concession over all of the province’s state-owned plantations.
“The provincial authority wanted to threaten us so that we don’t protest about the dissolution” of the groups, Chhe Chan said.
“They want us to work for the company,” he added. “We won’t join [Tai Seng] because they will fire us after we join them.”
Chey Sayoeun could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Tai Seng Director-General Ly Hong Sin confirmed that the meeting had taken place.
He said that his company will give jobs to any solidarity group workers that register with his company, but all those who don’t register must leave the plantations.
“We want to get the plantations, the quicker the better,” he added. “Wildfire [season] is coming, we must clear [undergrowth] now.”