While Cambodia and Malaysia now have a legal agreement governing how Malaysia will treat authorized Cambodian workers, the far bigger flow from Cambodia to Thailand is fraught with stories of worker abuse and exploitation.
The situation between Cambodia and Thailand has become more difficult since the economic crash of 1997. One Ministry of Labor employee who asked not to be named said there is no worker-protection agreement between the two countries.
Ung Chanthol, director of the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center, said a pact between Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Thailand in the mid-1990s had lapsed by the time of the 1997 crash.
Since then, she said, Thai police have arrested many Cambodian workers, jailing them for up to six months before sending them home. Since early 1999, she said, 700 to 800 migrant workers have been sent back to Cambodia from Thailand every month.
But difficult conditions are not deterring workers. According to a study published last year by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, as many as 82,000 Cambodians worked in Thailand in 1998.
The study notes that exact numbers are hard to come by as many of the workers are illegal. If the estimate is correct, it would mean Thailand is employing nearly as many Cambodian workers as the garment industry, Cambodia’s largest.
The study, which included interviews with residents in 14 Battambang-area villages in late 1998, found that those who migrate abroad are invariably poor, with few to no other job possibilities. Most said while they would rather stay in Cambodia, they could find no work outside the peak rice season, and in Thailand, they earned about twice as much as they could have in Cambodia.
The poorest of the migrant workers stayed close to the border, working mainly as farm laborers. “There were fewer risks involved, and no smuggling fees to be paid, but wages were lower,” the study noted.
Long-range migrants—defined as those who traveled deep into Thailand—were more likely to be construction workers, porters, fishermen or factory workers. They were slightly better-off than short-range migrants, but they needed to pay about $75 to “guides” who smuggle them across the border.
The study said migrants were frequently cheated by smugglers or employers, receiving less pay than promised or sometimes no pay at all.
Despite all these problems, the study concluded, three out of four workers planned to continue to cross the Thai border for work, because they don’t believe they can make a living in Cambodia’s struggling economy.
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)