Restoration workers from the West Mebun temple have held a protest outside the office a French archaeological college – the École Française D’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) that previously employed them – regarding the heritage Angkor Archaeological Park today in Cambodia today, demanding an end to the almost two-year long impasse that has kept them away from their jobs.
At the same time, the BWI has filed a complaint to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), charging that the Cambodian Government agency responsible for work on the site, APSARA, has violated freedom of association of restoration workers.
“The ruins contained at the Angkor Archaeological Park have been considered the eighth wonder of the world, and the skilled workers who restore them bring in a huge amount of revenue for Cambodia,” said BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson. “In filing this complaint, the BWI is making it clear that we stand in solidarity with the West Mebun workers, and, call on UNESCO to uphold human rights.”
The workers, who are members of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), negotiated a collective agreement in 2013 bringing them real improvements in the wages and conditions. Over this period, the project was supported with funding from the French Government.
The parties continued to honour that agreement until February 2018, when the BWTUC was informed that control of the site was passing from the French college École Française D’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) to the Cambodian Government agency APSARA.
“The West Mebun workers were told future employment on the site would be through individual contracts with a 20-65 percent cut in wages and other inferior conditions,” said BWTUC Acting President Chhlonh Sou. “The workers bravely rejected that contract, and ever since they have been pushing APSARA to uphold their basic rights.”
In 2019, APSARA brought unskilled workers onto the site to continue the work that the restoration workers had been doing. The President of the West Mebun workers’ union Chin Sophal has said that they are concerned that unskilled workers could damage the irreplaceable historical and cultural artefacts on West Mebun.
“We have been doing this work at Angkor for decades, but these workers have no such experience”, said Sophal. “More than just our rights as workers are at risk now; if UNESCO steps in to uphold our freedom of association, it will protect the critical cultural legacy of Angkor.”