Detained Workers Return Home from Indonesia

prey kanlang commune, Kom­pong Leav district, Prey Veng province – The last time Chek Sitha saw her son, he was headed down their village’s dirt road, toward the provincial capital and beyond. Like many young men from this poor province, Seung Kimseng’s goal was to work elsewhere as a fisherman, returning after a few months to help his family with the next rice harvest.

But that was in 1997, and almost four years later, Chek Sitha had not heard any news about him.

“I knew nothing about my son,” she said last week. “I had heard the news on the radio that Cambodians had been arrested in Indonesia. But I didn’t think he was one of them.”

Last month, Seung Kimseng pulled up in a car driven by Cam­bo­dian Red Cross workers, surprising his mother, family members and villagers who gave him a tearful greeting in front of the family’s small and tattered home.

That was the end of a long odyssey that took him from a decent job aboard a small fishing boat in Koh Kong to a harsh life on a larger Thai-owned fishing vessel to months of idle worry as a prisoner in Indonesia.

Seung Kimseng was one of 76 Cambodians arrested in July by the Indonesian navy and held at a military base until last month. The men had been recruited by a Thai businessman who promised them high wages to work aboard his fleet of fishing boats.

The story is typical. More and more Cambodians have been going to Thailand in recent years to work illegally in low-paying, sometimes dangerous, jobs in the fishing industry. Most workers on Thai fishing boats are poor men from Burma or Cambodia.

The 76 men were freed after the Cambodian government, the International Organization for Migration and other NGOs worked to gain their release. They were flown to Pochentong Airport May 18 and later given transportation to their home villages.

Three of the men, interviewed last week at their homes in Prey Veng, told similar stories of working with little sleep, food and medical care, and living in fear of arrest whenever their boats pulled into port because they did not have valid passports.

And although they had been given promises of regular wages, once onboard they were told by their Thai bosses that they must wait for a year or two to be paid—money they say they never received.

“I ended up with no money and stuck in jail. Now I have come back and my farm is in mortgage….I didn’t expect to get cheated,” said Nuoy Soy, a 33-year-old from Porpes, the village down the road from Seung Kimseng’s Svay village.

Nuoy Soy left his wife and four children three years ago to work for a few months as a laborer in Poipet. After five days there, a man asked if he wanted to work in Thailand, where the work, he said, was easier and the pay was higher.

After Nuoy Soy gave the man more than $50, he was smuggled across the border and sent to work aboard a fishing vessel where he encountered other Cambodian workers. Nuoy Soy said the middleman promised him $50 a month, but later he was asked to wait two years for his pay.

Workers, he said, were given just a small allowance for food, clothes and equipment. They were allowed to go ashore to buy their things, but always hurried back to the boat to avoid police.

“At first, I got beatings from the other Thai workers because I didn’t know how to do the job,” he said. “But once I learned, that all stopped.”

Nai Heun, a 21-year-old also from Porpes, said the Thais would curse him and his family, “even for the small mistakes.”

“They were not gentle,” he said. “But it is their country, so I didn’t want to argue back.”

Nai Heun’s journey began in Kompong Som, where he went in 1998 to work for about 10 months as a fisherman. Like Nuoy Soy, he was approached after only a few days by a recruiter working for the Thai fishing fleet.

“I worked night and day,” he said of the two years he worked without pay. “I could only rest during lunch time….My boss was very bad. He didn’t buy anything for us to eat.”

Seung Kimseng described similar harsh conditions and treatment. “Sometimes, if we were catching a lot of fish, we would work 24 hours a day,” he said. “I was so angry that I was not getting paid. But what could I do when I worked under them?”

Seung Kimseng added that the Thai workers “didn’t like me because I took the place of Thais when I came to work in their country.”

Like Seung Kimseng, many other men from Prey Veng sought fortune in Thailand. In Thailand’s Rayong province, where many of Thailand’s fishing boats are based, most Cambodians working in the fishing industry are from Prey Veng, according to Chou Bun Eng, director of Cambodian Women for Peace and Development.

Of the 73 men who returned last month, 27 listed their home address as Prey Veng, according to list compiled by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation. Twenty-two were from Kompong Cham, while others came from Kandal, Kompong Speu, Kampot, Koh Kong, Siem Reap, Kompong Thom and Phnom Penh.

In July, the five boats carrying the men went fishing illegally in Indonesian waters near Surabaya province. Indonesian navy vessels on patrol stopped the boats and arrested the men.

While they did not have to endure the harsh treatment they got at sea, they men weren’t given much more than a few chicken eggs to eat every day, Seung Kimseng said.

They were allowed to roam outside of the military base during the day to fish from the shore or search for odd jobs that normally paid less than $1 per day. As long as they returned at night and didn’t cause trouble in the villages, the authorities didn’t harm the men.

“The Indonesians liked us a lot,” said Nuoy Soy. “We could play volleyball and football. It wasn’t a bad place, but I didn’t have any money.”

The men also didn’t expect to see their families in the coming years, they said. They believed the Indonesians when they said that illegal immigrants were usually held there for three to five years.

At the same time, Indonesia was preparing to deport the men to Thailand because they had fake Thai passports. But a letter from one of the men to his mother in Cambodia asking for help started the men on the road to freedom.

It took two months after the Cambodian government and several NGOs got involved to secure the group’s release, said Nuon Chi Voarn, an official at the Cambodian embassy in Jakarta.

Now, all three men are back home, although out of money and out of a job. None of them will return to Thailand, they said.

Each of the three men said they may go to Phnom Penh soon to find work. But with his mother standing behind him last week, Seung Kimseng said he wouldn’t go unless he knows ahead of time that he has a good job waiting for him.


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