Hopeful Fired Workers Keep Going to Work

Siem Reap town – Chhoeung Chhorn still makes his daily hike to the stately gates of the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, even though the aging gardener was fired weeks ago.

Like more than 190 hotel workers fired from the hotel, he stopped wearing his uniform, because no employer waits for him to arrive for work. Instead there is his union boss and a logbook for his signature—proof that once again he showed up for work and appealed to have his job back at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

“I traveled 10 km from my house to here because we want to show that we want to work, but the hotel doesn’t let us back in,” Chhoeung Chhorn, 59, said Tuesday.

Fired after a weeklong strike in April, about 300 former workers at Cambodia’s two Raffles-owned hotels here and in Phnom Penh are pleading to return to the jobs and the lives they once had.

The management at Singapore-based Raffles International Ltd, which runs one of Asia’s largest and most luxurious hotel chains, says the workers went on strike illegally and disobeyed Cambodian court orders to return to their jobs within 48 hours. The deposed unions and management at the individual hotels are still open to talks, though, and the hotels have said they will take back workers they believe were coerced into participating in the strike.

On Saturday, the unions submitted proposals to both hotels asking that the workers be allowed to return to work, be paid for the time they have been off,  and wait for the Ministry of Social Affairs to resolve the contentious service charge issue. Union leaders and their lawyers said Tuesday they haven’t received a reply. Stephan Gnaegi, the in-country manager of the two Raffles hotels, declined comment on the negotiations.

As those talks drag on, fired workers interviewed in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh said Tuesday they had little clue that their efforts to receive a fair cut from the service charge on customers’ bills—the point of a long-running dispute at Hotel Le Royal, Grand Hotel d’Angkor and several other top-tier hotels—would deprive them of their livelihood, split their families and send them scraping to make ends meet. The fired workers maintain that their unions’ demands were just and that the hotels cheated them by firing unionized workers and reaching an agreement last month with hand-picked “workers’ representatives.”

Holding out on their demands, workers like Chhoeung Chhorn still mostly yearn for the relatively secure jobs they once had, even as they turn to other employment and make hasty plans for an uncertain future. “Today I caught two fish that I will cook for my dinner,” Chhoeung Chhorn said Tuesday, wading out of a small stream to pack his catch up. After signing the attendance logbook, he fished with another former hotel employee and his wife, who was busy sewing nets for sale. “But if the hotel still doesn’t allow me to work, I will have to go back to cultivating rice,” he said.

In Phnom Penh, many of the 97 workers fired from Le Royal make similar daily treks to the Hotel Le Royal grounds, to sign a logbook and collect 2,000 riel from their union leader. The sudden loss of income has forced Soeun Veasuth, 32, to send his 2-year-old daughter to Stung Treng province, where her grandparents can look after her more cheaply. Soeun Veasuth, who once worked at the reception desk, has withdrawn from classes at Pannasastra University to save money for himself and his wife, Muth Chariya. “My living condition right now is hard…because I have to be responsible for feeding my family,” he said. “What I need now is my job.”

His former co-worker at Le Royal, So Sovan, 31, echoed those sentiments. Though once emboldened by calls for the workers’ claim to the service charge, So Sovan now says that his 3-year-old daughter is his main concern.

“If I don’t have my job, my daughter won’t be able to get an education. I am the one who earns the income for this family, because my wife stays at home,” So Sovan said. “I expected and hoped that all of us would be rehired and start working again. I need my job back as soon as possible,” he said.

Speaking with a reporter, he and his 25-year-old wife, Sum Mala, swung open the wooden windows of their small Chamkar Mon district home in Phnom Penh to allow a breeze through the room. They said they were trying to keep their utility costs as low as possible, and were not using their electric fan. “Living in Phnom Penh, you have to pay a lot for everything…. Now my husband is jobless and I have to save money by not using our utilities as much, but the weather has been too hot recently…but I can’t use the fan,” Sum Mala said.

Back in Siem Reap on Tuesday afternoon, fired workers ambled outside the Grand Hotel d’Angkor as their former colleagues—the workers who did not go on strike—filed onto the hotel’s grounds, passing tight security by flashing their yellow employee cards. Grand Hotel d’Angkor Manager Riaz Mahmood said Tuesday that business was good, but he declined to comment on negotiations over the service charge or rehiring the fired staffers. The talk outside the hotel gates, however, was of increasing concern. Kim Sovanna, an adviser to the hotel’s union, said fired workers come every day for a simple lunch of rice and fish paid for by the union. But the union’s money is running out, and soon the lunches will, too, she said. “We don’t have much money left. I am afraid that I don’t have the money to buy food for the workers,” she said.

Faced with the finality of permanent layoffs, union leaders say the key now is to get their followers back to work in the hotel and hope the government will then solve the service charge dispute.

In the meantime, workers should come to work and mark their names in the logbook in the hopes that management will take them back, said Sao Van Thein, head of the union at Le Royal.

“All the workers are facing problems,” he said.

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