Cambodia: Stifling new measures against striking workers are ‘unjustified’ – UN human rights experts

Geneva, February 16, 2022.- UN human rights experts* today criticised an ongoing COVID-19 quarantine imposed on striking casino workers in Cambodia, saying authorities must not disguise a crackdown on peaceful and lawful labour action as a public health response.

“There is a general inconsistency and lack of transparency in Cambodia’s COVID-19 protocols,” the experts said. “In this case, authorities appear to have dressed up efforts to stifle peaceful and lawful labour action as public health measures. There cannot be one rule for striking workers and another rule entirely for the general public.”

The independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council expressed concerns that more than a week after being forced to take COVID-19 tests, hundreds of striking workers reportedly still do not have their results or clarity on when they will be released from quarantine.

Officials issued a directive on 15 February instructing striking workers to move to a location outside of Phnom Penh city – far from the ‘sight and sound’ of the Naga World casino premises and management. The experts said the latest order was inconsistent with international human rights law.

The strike, which started on 18 December 2021, came to a halt at the start of February after the government announced that one striking worker had tested positive for COVID-19, even though the person had apparently not been at the site for approximately two weeks prior to the positive test.

On 5 February, Cambodian authorities prevented several hundred strikers from moving to the strike site and ordered they board buses to be taken for compulsory COVID-19 tests at a makeshift testing site. Many strikers are currently awaiting the results of second tests even after receiving negative first tests; authorities have instructed even those who return negative PCR tests to remain in self-isolation for a further seven days.

“This breaks the continuity of a strike that has been conducted lawfully. More worryingly these sluggish test results and the general approach shows the lengths that authorities may be willing to go to in order to thwart the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly,” they said.

In Cambodia, current testing protocol does not commonly require isolation for those who test negative from a COVID-19 test.

The experts are also concerned the measures could lead to further arrests and police violence against the workers. At least 35 union leaders and activists have been arrested since the strike began over workers’ claims that 365 Naga World casino and resort staff members were dismissed unfairly.

Since the latest government order, seven people have been arrested. Three of those remain in detention on charges of ‘obstructing the implementation of (COVID-19) measures’. The others have been discharged.

“According to information, there were only two arrest warrants yet seven people ended up in police detention, while video has surfaced showing serious injuries to one of those detained,” the experts said.

They said the government has a duty under a number of ratified treaties and conventions to protect the human rights of the striking workers. Furthermore, Cambodia is obliged to respect the right to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to form and join trade unions in line with ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and related instruments.

“The manner that authorities have imposed restrictions on lawful and peaceful strikers based on public health concerns are unjustified, unnecessary and disproportionate in the given circumstances,” the experts said. “Authorities should engage in peaceful and patient dialogue with the strikers rather than use heavy-handed measures.”

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