A recruitment agency and a Qatari construction firm interviewed about 100 workers Tuesday in Phnom Penh hoping they will be among the first group of Cambodians to join hundreds of thousands of migrants working on Qatar’s highly criticized 2022 World Cup construction projects.
Kierth Thavarath, managing director of Phnom Penh’s KCTC Manpower Supply, and Ali Kansa, managing director of Tawasol Group Qatar, interviewed the workers at the National Technical Institute. Both men said they would attempt to send the workers to Qatar as soon as possible.
“Now we prepare everything and [will] send them soon,” Mr. Thavarath said.
Mr. Kansa said he would interview another 100 workers today and wanted to hire as many qualified Cambodians as possible.
“We are trying to find the best people,” he said, adding that his company planned to hire hundreds more Cambodians if the first group works out.
Since successfully bidding in 2010 to host the World Cup, Qatar—a country of about 2 million —has come under fire for exploiting and abusing its 1.4 million migrant workers, many of whom are constructing venues for the 2022 event.
On Monday, advocacy group New Fifa Now and international labor groups held a press conference in London to convince sponsors of Fifa, world football’s governing body, to push the organization to be more critical of Qatar.
“Qatar is a slave state,” Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confedration, said in a statement on Monday.
“The discrimination, the racism, the denial of rights for 1.4 million migrant workers adds up to apartheid and a model of employment that is simply slavery.”
Cambodia and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2011 allowing Qatari companies to recruit Cambodian workers.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment this week. Late last month, however, he said the MoU with Qatar still stands, but that Cambodia had no plans to send workers there.
“We are not approving and we haven’t implemented the agreement with Qatar,” Mr. Sour said. “We are still waiting to see the real situation.”
But Mr. Thavarath said on Monday that the Labor Ministry gave his company a license to recruit workers for Qatar when he first opened his firm about a year ago. He said he has been actively recruiting since November.
Mr. Thavarath said the licensing had primarily been organized through Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, and Seng Sakada, general-director of the ministry’s labor department.
Contacted Tuesday, Mr. Mean said he was not authorized to speak to the media and referred questions to Mr. Sakada. In his office at the ministry Tuesday, Mr. Sakada, speaking through his secretary, refused to answer reporters’ questions about Qatar.
Despite the numerous reports of rights abuses committed by companies in Qatar, Mr. Thavarath said the Cambodian workers would be safe in Tawasol’s hands.
“We want to make sure everything is OK and they respect the worker,” he said. “When we talked to the contractor, we made sure they work to the labor law of Qatar and international law.”
Mr. Thavarath added that the workers being sent to Qatar would earn about 1,100 Qatari riyal (about $300) a month and Tawasol would cover the cost of their food and accommodation.
Mr. Kansa said his company fully complies with Qatar’s labor law and does not abuse its workers.
“Our company is ruled class A, meaning the government checks on every issue of my company,” he said.
According to Mr. Kansa, the Cambodians would primarily work as masons and electricians on hotels being constructed to accommodate visitors during the World Cup.
“It’s good for these people; they will get trained,” he said.
Asked about the reports of abuse in Qatar, Mr. Kansa claimed the media and rights groups were exaggerating.
“This is not true,” he said. “All of Qatar’s enemies are trying to highlight some issues, which are not true. I’m telling you truthfully that it’s very well controlled. The government is very, very strict about everything.”
Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, called Mr. Kansa’s remarks “preposterous.” “Anyone claiming that is either lying or completely ignorant of the situation,” he said.
“The problem is not the companies. The problem is the system, of which the companies are a part,” Mr. McGeehan said. “And at the bottom of the supply chain, abuses are widespread.”
Dy The Hoya, program officer for migration and trafficking issues at the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian NGO, said it was troubling that the government had seemingly decided behind closed doors to allow migrant workers to travel to Qatar.
“I think the Cambodian government has to have an open forum to invite partners like NGOs to discuss and talk about the MoU,” he said. “And we have to create a labor attache who can clear a road and take care of migrant workers in Qatar.”
Korn Sokleng, 24, a welder from Kompong Chhnang province, said after Tuesday’s interviews with Tawasol that he wanted to go to Qatar because he can make more than the $200 a month he earns now.
“The salary is much more than [in] Cambodia,” he said.
Mr. Sokleng added that he had never heard of rights abuses in Qatar and was not concerned.
“I don’t know what will happen in Qatar, but I think if the company brings us to work it will be OK,” he said.
Eng Phearum, 32, another prospective worker from Phnom Penh, said that while he was concerned about conditions in Qatar he still wanted to work there.
“I am worried…because it is a very long trip and we do not know who will protect us if incidents happen,” he said.
“They told us after the interview to register and in the next two weeks they will take us to Qatar.”