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Cambodian authorities force NagaWorld strikers onto city buses to remove them from picket lines near the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh, February 23, 2022. © 2022 CamboJA News

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should press Cambodian authorities to stop using Japan-funded public buses to forcibly remove striking workers from picket lines in Phnom Penh, Human Rights Watch said today. The Cambodian government’s actions against workers have violated their basic rights to strike and to freedom of association and expression.

Since the NagaWorld Casino laid off 1,329 workers in April 2021, former employees have been protesting outside the casino in central Phnom Penh and went on strike in December. Local authorities have arrested dozens of striking union activists and forcibly removed them from the strike site in Japan-funded public buses, transporting them to the outskirts of the capital city or to Covid-19 quarantine sites.

“Japan should demand that Cambodian authorities stop misusing buses provided with Japanese taxpayer money or face being complicit in Cambodian government abuses against striking workers,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer at Human Rights Watch. “The Japanese government should be promoting workers’ rights abroad, not allowing foreign aid to be used to undermine them.”

On September 27, 2016, the Japanese government signed a grant program of nearly 1.4 billion yen (US$10 million), to donate 80 buses to Phnom Penh.

In a June 24, 2022 letter, Human Rights Watch asked Japan’s foreign aid agency, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to disclose whether the Japanese government had expressed concerns or taken any action regarding the Cambodian government’s misuse of the buses. The agency responded on July 28 that “the Japanese government and JICA have been in close contact on a daily basis with the Cambodian government, including about the human rights situation, and are working on this matter in an appropriate manner, but considering this is a diplomatic matter, we would like to refrain from commenting on the details of the communication.”

It is evident from video footage circulating on social media that officials are using the buses to assist in strike-breaking. One video shows at least five uniformed police, accompanied by three men in civilian clothing – one of whom is holding a walkie-talkie – pushing and dragging three female strikers onto a bus stairwell. Human Rights Watch verified the authenticity of the video, identified the exact location, and matched the bus’s interior with the buses financed by Japan.

NagaWorld Casino’s mass layoff in April 2021 included the president of Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), Chhim Sithar, and other union leaders and activists. Since then, the union has demanded the reinstatement of dismissed workers, in particular union leaders, and payment of fair compensation for those terminated in accordance with Cambodia’s Labor Law.

In December, the Cambodian authorities immediately and without basis labelled the union’s industrial action “illegal,” yet workers continued their strike. The authorities detained 11 union activists, including Chhim Sithar, on the basis of groundless “incitement” charges as well as alleged violations of Cambodia’s abusive “law on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other deadly infectious diseases,” even though strikers complied with the required Covid-19 measures.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Cambodia has ratified, provides for the right to strike. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association has stated that the right to strike is a right that workers and their organizations, including trade unions and federations, are “entitled to enjoy,” that any restrictions on this right “should not be excessive,” and that the “legitimate exercise of the right to strike should not entail prejudicial penalties of any sort, which would imply acts of anti-union discrimination.”

In 1991, Japan issued its charter on Official Development Assistance (ODA), which includes human rights as one of its principles. The principle regarding how aid should be used in Japan’s ODA Charter states: “Full attention should be paid to efforts for promoting democratization and the introduction of a market-oriented economy, and the situation regarding the protection of basic human rights and freedom in the recipient country.”

The Cambodian government’s use of the vehicles to assist in forcibly disbanding peaceful union protests, undercuts workers’ rights to strike, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and to bargain collectively, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Japanese government’s commitment to abide by its development assistance charter will raise serious doubts if no immediate and effective action is taken to end Cambodia’s misuse of its buses,” Kasai said. “Tokyo should send a clear message to the Cambodian government that respect for human rights is central to the bilateral relationship.”

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