Cambodian men have become more susceptible to virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats thanks to rising unemployment at home and difficult immigration procedures, human-trafficking experts said Thursday.
Their comments were in response to a recent report from the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, which summarizes the stories of 49 Cambodian men and boys who were sold onto Thai fishing vessels. Most had been lured into crossing the border into Thailand illegally by employment brokers promising construction and factory jobs.
A 21-year-old from Prey Veng province quoted in the UNIAP report, which was released April 22, said he was regularly beaten by the captain of his boat but was too frightened to escape.
“My boss…threatened me that if I braved to run, he would shoot me,” the report quoted him as saying. “A worker died because he fell into the sea and my boss knew it as well, but he did not return to save him.”
The same man said that he was promised a salary of $169 per month, but was only paid about $564 for one year’s work. When he gave his wages to his boss to send to his family in Prey Veng, the captain kept the money for himself.
“Sometimes, at the end of five years, they have nothing,” said Lim Tith, the national project coordinator for UNIAP. The men reported being sold by crooked brokers for between 10,000 and 15,000 baht, or between $287 and $430.
Mr Lim Tith said the men—including nine under the age of 18-faced “unbearable conditions” on board the fishing boats, including physical abuse, long working hours with little rest and denial of health care. One man said that he was forced to stay awake for three days straight to mend fishing nets.
Twenty-nine of the men reported seeing their captains commit murder.
“We saw a Thai captain decapitate a Vietnamese fisherman, and another Thai captain decapitate a Thai fisherman,” a 19-year-old from Banteay Meanchey is quoted as saying.
All of the men interviewed for the report jumped ship in Sarawak, Malaysia, where some were sold once again—this time to work on rubber and palm oil plantations. Eventually, they were able get in contact with their families in Cambodia, who called human rights group Licadho. None of the men said they had been screened by the Malaysian government as victims of trafficking.
Licadho acted as an intermediary between the men’s families and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other appropriate authorities, according to Manfred Hornung, the group’s legal consultant.
“We have an increasing numbers of families that contact us,” Mr Hornung said, although he added that no official statistics are available on the number of Cambodian men trafficked for labor.
John McGeoghan, project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration in Cambodia, said that his organization paid to repatriate 35 men from Malaysia in 2008.
“We don’t know how many cases there are,” Mr McGeoghan said.
However, he added that the
global economic crisis could lead more Cambodian men to be tempted by promises of jobs in Thailand.
“We may see an increase in un-employment and people may take more risks,” he said. “It’s really a perfect storm of issues.”
Mr Lim Tith agreed that as struggling Cambodian garment and construction industries lay off workers, “more people have become more vulnerable.”
He said that more investment in creating jobs in rural areas is needed. “Now I see a trend that many of the [international] donors have focused on rural development. That helps.”
Vorng Soth, Minister of Labor and Vocational Training, and Oum Mean, secretary of state for the ministry, both declined to comment Thursday.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, said Thursday that only people who leave the country illegally become trafficking victims.
“The people who want to work abroad, they should go legally so the law can protect them,” he said. Migrant workers should find jobs through government agencies, instead, he added.
Ten Borany, deputy director of the ministry’s human traffic department, said that the government is trying to prevent labor exploitation through a public-awareness campaign.
He added that if crooked brokers are found, they will be charged under the anti-human trafficking law, but that it is difficult for police to find brokers because victims only know their names and not their addresses.
Mr Lim Tith said that the legal immigration process is expensive and time-consuming, and that illegal crossings are simply easier.
Workers have to travel from their home provinces to Phnom Penh to visit passport offices in the capital, and it can take two or three months before the documentation is ready.
In contrast, “if you want to go illegally to Thailand, it takes three days,” he said.
The legal channels are more expensive, too. Officially, the Cambodian government has lowered the passport fee to $20 for migrant workers, but Mr Lim Tith said that in practice, bribes could drive the price higher.
“We don’t know if $20 is $20,” Mr Lim Tith said.
To really make a difference, the government must set up passport offices in rural areas, and streamline the process for acquiring a passport, he said.
Kamrob Palawatwichai, first secretary of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, said he had no comment late Thursday. “I have to verify the facts,” he said.