koh kong district, Koh Kong province – Police rescued more than 30 laborers Monday who alleged that the Taiwanese company Green Rich Co Ltd held them in conditions close to indentured servitude at a controversial plantation located inside a national park.
The workers were carried by boat from the isolated work site on the Khlang Yai river to a National Route 4 ferry crossing. From there 10 were transported to Phnom Penh and put in the care of rights group Licadho. The others went to their home provinces.
The workers told reporters that several people at the site—where whole families have been recruited to set up camp and cut forest since March—had contracted malaria and had barely enough to eat.
“The company doesn’t provide anything—no mats, mosquito nets or hammocks,” said Huot Huon, 40. He and other workers alleged that Green Rich had not paid them, but instead forced them to borrow money and become indebted to the company.
Police have now ferried workers from the site at least six times, and more laborers have asked to leave whenever authorities arrive, said Koh Kong district penal Police Chief Mom Sovanareth.
He said some of the 300 laborers at the site tried to leave by swimming upriver or trekking through about 5 km of national forest to the nearest road.
Police took two boatloads of workers Monday, including 17 from Kompong Cham province’s Memot district.
Prum Kimchhea, one of the evacuated workers, said a recruiter visited his village and promised good wages and medical care at the work site. The worker said he received nothing.
“The company offered us 10,000 riel a day, but now I realize that they don’t pay any money to the workers, so we want to go home,” he said.
On Monday, a man on the site claiming to represent Green Rich said the company had done nothing illegal and that workers were trying to get out of repaying loans to the company.
“The workers borrowed a lot of money from the company and then they don’t want to work to pay them back,” said the man, who identified himself as Chan Tha. He added that a human resources manager was in charge of the workers, not himself.
Chu Sinphong, a Green Rich liaison in Cambodia with the Heng Brothers Co Ltd, a local trading and investment firm, said he was unaware of the allegations.
The company’s management, based in Taiwan, could not be contacted by telephone Tuesday.
Allegations of withholding wages are only the latest controversy to hit the Green Rich project. The company also plans to clear 18,000 hectares of trees inside Botum Sakor National Park in order to cultivate acacia trees that will be exported for paper production.
Though the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Environment have licensed the company to operate in the concession, which totals about a tenth of the entire park, critics say the concession is illegal and are calling for its cancellation.
The NGO WildAid, which manages the park with the Ministry of Environment, is scheduled to meet with Minister Mok Mareth today to discuss the Green Rich development and the proposed opening of an 8,000-hectare sand mine in the same national park.
Government and company officials insist the concession is legal, though they acknowledge that the project has gone forth in the absence of any long-term plans for the park or a legally-mandated study on the project’s environmental impact.
Contacted by phone, Mok Mareth said: “We’re trying to find out how we can solve these problems.”
(Additional reporting by Luke Reynolds and Solana Pyne)