Sambath Vorn stands before a handful of protesters at the Sorya Transportation company in Phnom Penh, shouting through a megaphone.
Fired in April, after he and other drivers demanded a raise in wages, from $120 to $180 a month, he is demanding the company allow its drivers to return to work. He says he wants his job back. And a higher salary.
The 29-year-old is the first bus driver in Cambodia to ever lead such a demonstration.
The company claims he was not fired, but that his contract ran out, he says later. “But it’s not true. The fact is that I asked for a higher salary and then the company threatened to kick me out of my career.
Sambath Vorn grew up in a family of farmers in Kampong Speu province. He is eloquent, despite dropping out of school in the 10th grade. He moved to Phnom Penh, where he was an assistant truck driver in Chrouy Changva, outside the city, before he started driving a bus for a company in Preah Sihanouk province.
He started driving a tour bus in Siem Reap in 2008, got married in 2010 and started working for Sorya in 2011. His wife works at a factory. Together they have one daughter.
While driving for Sorya, he began asking for higher wages. When he felt he wasn’t being heard, he started to form a union. On April 10, the day after his union was official, he was fired.
He still wears his driver uniform, and he says the company is not following the rules. “I hadn’t even protested,” he says. “Whenever I worked overtime, there was no extra money.”
The cost of living has exceeded his pay, he says, echoing similar concerns from garment factory workers, many of whom are also calling for higher wages. “The daily expenses, the food at the market, the school fees for the kids all are expensive,” he says. “That’s why I demanded a higher salary.”
There has been no response to his demands from the company, after nearly five months of protest. The Ministry of Labor has spoken to the company, to no avail, he says.
At first, he had the support of about 90 drivers, but after a few of them were fired, that support waned. Seventeen of them are now out of work. These are the ones protesting. Sambath Vorn says he hasn’t found another job.
“If I change jobs, there’s still no justice,” he says. “The company still does not respect the full rights of employees.”
Leading a union is work, he adds. “My demands are just to find freedom and dignity, so that employers respect the rights of their staff. If the company abuses its staff, I can call for justice.”