Thav Voeun, 25, had never seen the sea. “Somalia,” which is where he’d end up, was a word he’d never heard.
A native of Pursat province’s Bath Trach village, Thav Voeun completed just two years of school. In 2005, he says he was recruited through a local politician to work in a cannery in Thailand. But when he and 22 other Cambodians disembarked from their bus, passports and tourist visas in hand, they found themselves at a large port in Samutsakorn, Thailand, facing not a factory, but a ship.
For the next two years, he toiled, sometimes sleeping only one to four hours a day, fighting headaches and seasickness to haul fish from the waters off Somalia. He says he was stripped of his passport, insulted by the Thai boat captain and got in fights with the three armed Somali guards on board, who were there ostensibly to guard against pirates.
He touched land only once in two years, when his boat docked in Oman for four days to get oil and to sell fish. Though he says he wanted to come home, it was hard to imagine leaving. “I cannot,” he said. “If I run and come back home I’ll get no money.”
He finally returned last March with 102,000 baht (currently about $3,240) in hand—less than the 6,000 baht a month he was promised—and managed to build his family a new house and a machine to recharge batteries. Now his family, once subsistence farmers, makes $5 a day.
He says he’s glad he went and seems discomfited by the suggestion that some wrong may have been done to him. “I’m happy. There were a lot of people there to have fun with,” he said. He says he’d go again but has a business to run.
Thav Voeun is part of a growing tide of Cambodian workers who seek their fortunes abroad in uncertain, and sometimes abusive, conditions. The lucky ones come home well off. The unlucky ones don’t come home at all.
Cambodia’s post-Pol Pot baby boomers are now entering the job market, giving the nation the fastest growing labor force in Asean. Faced with this burgeoning supply of largely unskilled workers—and the tempting example of the Philippines, which has built up a thriving labor export economy—the Cambodian government has adopted labor export as an official pillar of economic growth.
But government officials also say they are keenly aware of the risks migrant laborers face overseas.
“We care about their safety and security. When you send men to work, maybe they’re living in slavery conditions. When you send women, it’s more that they could land in a brothel. I prefer to try and create jobs in Cambodia,” said Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh.
Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, points out that in theory, migrants go abroad and return with new and better skills, which they can use to bolster existing industries and even create new ones. This, he says, was crucial to South Korean and Taiwanese growth.
“Look at pattern of development of different countries,” said Hang Chuon Naron. “In the 1960s, Korea, Taiwan exported labor to the US. Ten, 15 years later, those people come back and worked as engineers. One of Cambodia’s directions is to export surplus labor. In the future they’ll come back and develop indigenous industries.”
The bottom line with migration, he says: “It’s not whether I like it or not. It’s already there.”
Still, it’s not clear to critics how Cambodian maids in Malaysia and fishermen in Thailand will ultimately add much to the nation’s intellectual capital.
Chuop Narath, the deputy director of the Ministry of Labor’s Department of Employment and Manpower, worries that the costs of migration outweigh its benefits. He says: “When they [Cambodians] are young, they are full of energy. They go to Thailand and work for the Thai economic growth. When they get sick, they come back to Cambodia, with HIV, tuberculosis. It’s a big problem for our society.”
He adds: “The push to have workers work abroad should not be a long-term policy. In 10 to 20 years, we won’t have any leaders. We will only know how to work for a salary. We should have the ideas ourselves.”
But he acknowledges that jobless Cambodians will continue to seek their fortunes abroad, and the best thing that the government can do now is try to protect them. “We have to change from illegal channels and move to legal channels,” Chuop Narath said.
That’s just what the government has been trying to do. Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding with Thailand in 2003 to govern labor migration and is in the process of drafting comparable agreements with Malaysia and South Korea. In addition, the government has signed agreements with Japan and Brunei, and is considering accords with Hong Kong and Singapore, according to CPP lawmaker Ho Naun, who chairs the National Assembly commission on labor.
Cambodia has also ratified the UN Convention on Human Rights and signed the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of Labor Migrants and their Families. In 2006, it cracked down on illegal recruitment brokers, enforcing a 1995 law that requires recruitment agencies to register and deposit $100,000 in a Ministry of Labor account, funds to be used in case workers are abused or abandoned without pay. The number of recruitment agencies plummeted from 42 to 13, according to the Ministry of Labor.
In August, the government launched a database with the International Organization for Migration to register and track overseas workers.
But paper rules don’t always translate into practice.
The most notorious worker abuses occur among young Cambodian men who work on long-range fishing boats, many of which depart from Thailand, according to IOM and Legal Support for Children and Women, an NGO that works with Cambodian migrants. Some come home claiming to have seen men thrown overboard or mauled with heavy metal hooks. Others complain to NGOs of having to do treacherous 20- to 30-meter dives to set up fishing nets, sometimes for hours at a time.
In a December 2006 study, the International Labor Organization found that 20 percent of the males on fishing boats they interviewed said they were “forced to work,” and the vast majority of them were 15 to 17 years old. All said they regularly worked more than the legal limit of eight hours a day. More than three quarters said they either could not or didn’t know if they could access their immigration documents; more than 90 percent didn’t have a written contract.
Ly Vichuta, the director of Legal Support for Children and Women, calls it slavery. “They work a month. They come back with nothing,” she said.
Chuop Narath, of the Cambodian Ministry of Labor, says it is illegal for Cambodians to enter Thailand on a tourist visa and work for a Thai company, whether in Thailand or overseas. Moreover, he says that workers must be recruited through one of Cambodia’s licensed agencies, which now number 18.
“It is illegal. It is a kind of trafficking,” he said.
The Embassy of Thailand in Phnom Penh, however, maintains that it is perfectly legal for Cambodians to enter Thailand on a tourist visa and leave to work for a Thai company in a third country.
“I issue a visa to enter Thailand and pass through Thailand in a given period of time. In another country it’s not my responsibility,” said one Thai Embassy official, who insisted on anonymity because he said he is not authorized to speak with the press.
Moreover, he said that once a company leaves Thai soil, Thailand is no longer responsible for overseeing labor conditions, and that the terms of the MOU with Cambodia, which grants workers basic rights, no longer apply. “The MOU between Thailand and Cambodia is enforced only in Thailand. Not in another country. If they work in Somalia, OK,” he said, adding: “Thai companies abroad, we cannot apply Thai law. They have to comply with the law in that country.”
Another Thai embassy official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Thai companies can hire workers from Cambodia or anyplace else. “They don’t have to go through any brokers. If they have sufficient documents, we can approve their visas,” he said.
Some Cambodians who suffer overseas find they have little recourse once they return home.
In 2005, Pech Sok, 37, who lives in Pursat’s Phum Roung village, took a bus with 35 men to Thailand, thinking he would work in a canning factory and earn 6,000 baht a month. Like Thav Voeun, he ended up on a boat off Somalia instead.
“The work is beyond the land, on the sea. There were big waves. No one wants to live there. If there were lots of fish, we didn’t sleep,” he said.
After a year with no word from her husband, his wife, Tim Phea, thought he’d died. Along with four other villagers, she filed a complaint with local rights group Adhoc.
She also complained to her village chief, who brought her to meet the man who’d helped facilitated her husband’s passage: Heng Chanthourn, the chairman of the SRP’s provincial chapter in Pursat. But nothing happened.
Ngeth Theary, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator in Pursat, said those five villagers filed a lawsuit in Pursat Provincial Court in November 2005, charging Heng Chanthourn and another local SRP politician, Oung Savath, with fraud.
Pursat’s chief prosecutor, deputy prosecutor, and chief court clerk could find no record of the case.
Heng Chanthourn said in an interview that he had done nothing wrong. “I was not a broker. I just point people in the direction,” he said.
He said he had heard through a Thai friend that there were jobs in the fishing industry in Thailand, and he was merely trying to help poor villagers find work by putting the word out through the local SRP network.
The diligent workers, he added, came back happy – and rich. The complainers, he said, are lazy. “Four or five people came back before their contracts were up because they were lazy,” he said.
Oung Savath also denies wrongdoing. “Villagers wanted to go work in Thailand themselves,” he said.
Pech Sok didn’t return to Cambodia until April 2007. He said he came home with 120,000 baht (currently about $3,800) – which works out to 4,363 baht a month, less than the 6,000 promised.
He shrugs off the possibility of complaining. “I don’t know where we could solve this problem,” he said.
He bought two cows and a motorbike. Now he’s back farming a 60 by 100 meter plot of rice paddy, dreaming once again of making some money in Thailand.
But he says he never wants to go back to Somalia. Besides, he said: “My wife doesn’t want me to go.”