New Delhi, Aug. 28: Wanted, Lara Croft: Labour Negotiator.
India is caught up in a labour dispute at an 800-year-old Cambodian Buddhist temple used in the 2001 Angelina Jolie action thriller, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and nestled among the famous Angkor shrines.
The external affairs ministry and India’s embassy in Cambodia are engaged in tense negotiations with labour unions there to resolve a dispute that exploded after the Archaeological Survey of India fired 38 local workers in January.
The workers, hired by India’s apex archaeological and conservation agency for the restoration of the Ta Prohm temple 300km from capital Phnom Penh, appealed to Cambodia’s labour disputes panel that has largely ruled in their favour.
Ensuring good relations with Cambodia is crucial to India’s “Look East” diplomatic approach. But the archaeological agency has told the Indian embassy and the foreign ministry that it does not have enough work for those who were fired.
“India is obligated to fulfil the requirements of Cambodian labour law and the workers want a fair settlement,” Dave Welsh, the Cambodia head of the US-based global labour group Solidarity Center that is aiding the workers, told The Telegraph over phone from Phnom Penh.
The dispute threatens to overshadow pro bono restoration work by India in Cambodia since 1986, when it agreed to a request from the Khmer government to take up the conservation of the Angkor Wat complex, the world’s single largest religious shrine.
At the time, Cambodia was still struggling to stumble towards peace under a Vietnam-supported regime opposed by former dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Local workers were hard to find, and it took India seven years and $4 million (Rs 26 crore at current exchange rates) to complete the project in 1993.
A decade later, in 2003, the archaeological survey began work on Ta Prohm and is scheduled to complete by February 2014 the restoration of the temple that sees the second highest footfall out of Cambodia’s tourist sites.
Led by Dinesh Patnaik, India’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, diplomats at the embassy have held multiple rounds of talks with the unions in a bid to reach an agreement. A fresh round of talks has now been scheduled for September 13.
“This is a problem thrust upon us by a misunderstanding on the part of the Archaeological Survey,” an Indian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid tensions with the conservation body. “We have little choice but to handle this mess and we will find a solution.”
So far, a solution has eluded the negotiators.
In 2001, when the makers of Tomb Raider picked Ta Prohm as the location for key scenes, the temple was not just overrun by tree trunks growing out of crevices in the monument but was also unsafe for tourists to enter. It is at Ta Prohm that Lara Croft meets a mysterious girl who later turns up at multiple locales across the world, helping her solve mysteries from her past.
The archaeological survey hired a workforce of over 150 Cambodians to assist its restoration when it took up the project in 2003. It has left the “natural” feel of the monument intact — the shrine built in the 12th century by the Buddhist Khmer empire was rediscovered in the 19th century with trees intertwined with the ruins.
The Indian agency has strengthened the structure to allow it to function as a site that tourists can visit safely, and that will stay preserved.
But as its work wound down, the agency concluded it did not need the entire workforce and asked seven workers to leave in January. It then fired another 31, including some union leaders, according to an account accepted by both Indian officials and representatives of the Cambodian workers.
“Our understanding was that the workers were hired as day labourers, without any contractual obligations on our part,” an Indian official here said.
But the arbitration council ruled that Cambodian labour laws would apply, the two sides needed to negotiate, the workers would have to be reinstated and that they could bargain collectively.
India chose not to appeal because it was keen to avoid any suggestion that it was unwilling to play by Cambodia’s local laws.
Patnaik and his team have tried to resolve the dispute through negotiations. India first proposed to the fired workers that it is willing to compensate them but they turned down the proposal.
The Indian embassy is now exploring the possibility of rotating working hours to allow re-hiring of the fired personnel.
The Cambodian workers have also turned for support to Congress Rajya Sabha MP Rama Chandra Khuntia, a trade unionist who is also vice-president of the Asia Pacific region for the Building and Wood Workers International, the global grouping of construction labour unions.
“I have asked external affairs minister Salman Khurshid and ambassador Patnaik to look into the concerns of the Cambodian workers and to the resolve the dispute amicably,” said Khuntia, who may also visit Cambodia to participate in the September negotiations.