Rising Union Leader Behind Caltex Station Closures

In his fight for workers’ rights, Sar Mora has learned to be stubborn.

The union leader behind the closure of Caltex gas stations across Phnom Penh, Mr. Mora’s members remained on strike Sunday despite an apparent agreement on Friday for workers to return to their stations.

“We only agreed in principle,” Mr. Mora said Sunday, explaining he wants a written agreement before his members head back to work.

“We have not heard anything.”

About 300 Caltex workers, backed by the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), have been on strike since last Monday, demanding a monthly wage increase from $110 to $160.

On Friday, Caltex offered a one-time $20 bonus for employees to return to work as the company conducts a two-month wage study. Mr. Mora told reporters that he agreed to the deal, but Caltex stations remained shuttered over the weekend.

A Caltex spokesperson said the company is still reviewing its options.

Mr. Mora’s fight for workers’ rights began with a hospital visit in 2001.

Mr. Mora was working as knitter in a garment factory when he became ill and asked for time off. His employer refused and Mr. Mora was soon admitted to the hospital.

“They treated us like animals,” Mr. Mora said Sunday, sitting in his Phnom Penh home, which doubles as his office. “They forced me to work sick and warned me not to miss any more work after I was in the hospital.”

After his health was restored, Mr. Mora began volunteering for the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, the garment sector’s largest independent union.

In 2005, Mr. Mora lost his job when the factory he was working at closed and in 2007 formed the CFSWF, which now claims about 3,000 members and has recently made headlines for taking on some of the country’s most recognizable corporate brands.

Earlier this month, Mr. Mora successfully negotiated a pay raise for workers at Cambrew brewery, which produces Angkor beer, from $120 to $150 per month. It took just two days of strikes for workers’ demands to be met.

Mr. Mora’s union previously took on another major brewery, Cambodia Brewery Ltd. (CBL), when he negotiated a $40 wage hike for its beer promoters, who had been making $60.

The key to effective organizing in the commercial sector, Mr. Mora said, is to target companies that are partly owned by international brands—not just by powerful Cambodian businessmen.

“If the company is linked to international brands, they have a social responsibility,” Mr. Mora said. “If they are only owned by Cambodians, they don’t care about workers’ rights.”

Danish beer giant Carlsberg Group has a stake in Cambrew and Heineken International partly owns CBL. Caltex is the brand name used by U.S. oil giant Chevron in Cambodia.

His union’s success has come at a cost. He says he is sometimes tailed through the city by people working for the companies he is fighting against; he worries his home is being watched; and he regularly refuses bribes to stop organizing workers.

But Mr. Mora remains committed to his cause.

“If we are afraid of these people, they can do whatever they want,” he said.

“But if we keep fighting, we can hopefully make changes.”

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