ratanakkiri province – To be a rubber worker in Banlung district means spending about nine hours a day slashing tree bark and collecting white sap in plastic bags.
If you work for the Tai Seng Company, which has a rubber monopoly in the province, your family may together earn $255 a month tapping about 100 trees, laborers said in interviews this month.
But if your family toils on the 1,300 hectares of rubber in Banlung, controlled by so-called “solidarity groups,” an overseer may take 50 percent of your earnings with no apparent return, leaving you and your family with about $150 per month, workers said.
And if you are a worker in Solidarity Group 14, your family may be paid about $40 per month in cash, with the remaining salary coming in the form of overpriced rice and other supplies, workers said.
Rubber workers said that in many of the solidarity groups the original “worker representatives” sold their positions to private investors several years ago.
These investors now live off the earnings of the solidarity group plantation workers, purchasing their rubber at a fixed price and selling it on at a tidy profit to the Tai Seng rubber company.
Two plantation workers at the Group 14 plantation, Hong Saream, 32, and Khel Khemara, 40, were jailed Dec 31 after being accused of selling their rubber directly to Tai Seng, who was offering a far better price than their solidarity group bosses—whose only job now seems to be middlemen between plantation workers and Tai Seng.
Five others also accused of selling rubber to Tai Seng have fled Banlung, and their families have been forbidden to tap trees by solidarity group bosses, villagers and the Group 14’s co-owner Chhe Chann said.
Chhe Chann also said he is now preparing to evict the families of the fugitives from their homes inside the plantation.
A case now before the courts alleges that the seven workers stole rubber from the solidarity group owners.
“My husband has been in jail for a month,” said rubber worker Kim Chheang, 29, wife of Hong Saream.
“I had to pay $100 to the provincial prison so that he could be moved from a dark cell to a normal cell,” she claimed. “I had to borrow the money because I am not allowed to collect rubber anymore.”
Ratanakkiri prison director Ngin Nel declined to speak to a reporter.
Group 14 rubber worker Sam Sreng, 37, said that workers are resigned to the presence of the solidarity group overseers but they want to be given 70 percent of the price Tai Seng pays for their rubber and not the current 50 percent. That would leave the solidarity group bosses with a 30 percent share.
“I cannot afford to let my four children go to school,” Sam Sreng said.
Workers in several solidarity groups said that in the 1980s, when a 4,500-hectare rubber plantation in Ratanakkiri was owned by the state, the government asked workers to elect their representatives, who were then responsible for the day-to-day running of the plantation.
Thirty-three solidarity groups were then organized.
But in 2000, the government privatized that plantation, selling it to businessman Tai Seng.
According to Ministry of Agriculture documents, the government permitted the solidarity groups to manage 1,300 hectares of the plantation, but required them to sell their resin only to Tai Seng.
That’s when the previously elected representatives of the solidarity groups sold their positions to investors from Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kompong Cham province, workers said.
Chhe Chann said he bought Group 14 using money he borrowed from relatives and from selling property in Phnom Penh.
“I still owe my relatives $2,500,” he said during an interview in his Banlung district home.
Chhe Chann denied that he pockets the entire 50 percent cut he takes of resin sales to Tai Seng, and said he uses the profit he earns to hire additional workers and to loan money to pregnant or sick workers. He refused, however, to say how much money he earns or how much he loans to his workers.
“If Tai Seng opens his books, then I will too,” he said.
“Look around you, now they have karaoke and TV, they have [motorbikes]. They came here with nothing. Clearly we have contributed to poverty reduction,” he said of his workers.
“When they get paid, they disappear for three days, drinking and gambling. They waste their own money,” he claimed.
Asked if laborers would be better off without solidarity group bosses, Chhe Chann said the government would never agree to give land directly to workers.
“If you are a democrat, you should respect the will of the majority. Most workers favor the solidarity groups,” he added.
However, workers interviewed in Solidarity Groups 1, 14 and 22 said they opposed the system.
“The owners of the group just put the 50 percent in their pockets,” alleged Kri Savy, 48, a member of Group 1.
Tai Seng’s Director Ly Hong Sin said that he would pay 100 percent of the resin price directly to solidarity group workers, rather than the bosses, if the groups were abolished completely.
Ly Hong Sin said he pays his rubber tappers 85 percent of the purchase price, but would be willing to pay the solidarity group workers 100 percent because they already have their own equipment.
“I appeal to Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] to dissolve the solidarity groups, they are useless,” he said.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, agreed with Ly Hong Sin and said the solidarity groups, and their exploitative practices of poor plantation workers, should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
“The workers would be much better off if the solidarity groups were abolished,” he said.