kompong leaw district, Prey Veng province – Although they have memories and photographs, it is the $1,200 shiny red moto that most reminds the family of the 25-year-old son who has been gone for nearly a year.
The moto, parked unused near the family’s pigpen for most of the last year, was paid for with money Thuk Sarith earned during his work as a fisherman in Thailand.
“He always says it is OK. He says, ‘My boat is very nice. They take care of me,’” said Kim Yun, Thuk Sarith’s grandmother. “But maybe it is very difficult to work there, and he just doesn’t tell us.”
Thuk Sarith is like many young men in Prey Veng who leave this land-locked province—one of the poorest in Cambodia—and enter into Thailand illegally to do rough, yet relatively well-paying work in the Thai fishing industry.
For those who go to Thailand, however, the money they hope to earn may not be worth the risks. Most are subject to harsh working conditions. Others end up in jail, or weighed down by debt. Still others return to their families with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Thai boat owners often pay recruiters to tell villagers in Prey Veng that they can make more money in Thailand. And if the villagers are not convinced, then seeing people like Thuk Sarith buy a new Honda Dream is sometimes enough to persuade them.
That’s part of the story line to a movie now being filmed in Thailand and Cambodia that NGO officials hope to use to educate Cambodians on the pitfalls of work in Thailand. The film, entitled “No Home Too Far,” is a joint Thai-Cambodian production being filmed in Prey Veng province and Thailand’s Rayong province.
In the movie, one young Cambodian man returns to Prey Veng, telling others of his travels and the money he used to buy a new moto. Inspired, another villager goes to Thailand to find work on a fishing boat.
Later, the two meet again as workers on the same boat, but now the first young man is dying of AIDS. The Thai captain of the boat shows little concern and works his crew at all hours of the day.
Another scene shows a veteran of work in Thailand convincing a young Prey Veng villager not to join the crew of a Thai fishing boat.
“It’s hard work and risky,” said Pawana Wienrawee, technical adviser for Program for Appropriate Technology, or PATH. “For people who think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they should know that a lot of people come back with a lot of problems, not just money.”
Most workers on Thai fishing boats are poor men from Burma or Cambodia. And in Thailand’s Rayong province, most Cambodians working in the fishing industry are from Prey Veng, said Chou Bun Eng, director of Cambodian Women for Peace and Development.
“They go because they are poor and they cannot find a job,” Chou Bun Eng said. “And the number of people going is increasing day by day.”
More than 4,000 Prey Veng families have relatives who have gone to work in Thailand in the last four years, according to a survey done last year by PATH, an NGO with offices in Bangkok and Phnom Penh that is funding the movie and has done research for it along with Cambodian Women for Peace and Development.
“There are thousands of workers who go out of the province to find work in Phnom Penh and Thailand,” said provincial Governor Chuong Siv Vuth. “Prey Veng is the province with the most migrant workers.”
Thailand has set a quota of 3,000 Cambodians to work legally in the Thailand fishing industry. But PATH found that there are 10,000 to 15,000 Cambodians working in Rayong, all of them vulnerable to many different kinds of exploitation.
Cambodians who work illegally in Thailand usually pay an agent to bring them across the border. This can cost up to $130, and many villagers borrow money at high interest rates, or sell farm animals or land to pay for the journey. Often, they are dumped by agents near the border, penniless and jobless.
Those who do make it to Rayong and find work must avoid police who have recently been cracking down on illegal immigrants, according to Chou Bun Eng. More than 200 Cambodians were returned to the border in April, she said.
Cambodians also risk being thrown in jail for months at a time. They often lose their cash earnings to thieves, bribe-seeking policemen and border officials. Many Cambodian fishermen send their money home through a unique method.
With their phones in hand, agents meet the newly-paid fishermen as they walk off the docks. Calls are placed to other agents in Prey Veng, some of whom are just villagers with a mobile phone, according to Pawana Wienrawee. A transfer is arranged and a family member comes to pick up the money. Service fees can run as high as 30 percent.
“It has become a major system,” said Pawana Wienrawee. “But it is actually a better system” than carrying the money back to Cambodia.
Mental disorders caused by drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases contracted in brothels, injuries from fights and accidents, and the embarrassment of returning home without money are other hazards of the work.
Some stay for as long as five years, according to the PATH survey. Most stay from one to three years. Thuk Sarith, for example, has worked in Rayong for three years, returning to his home village near Prey Veng town once a year.
“He hopes to save enough money to marry,” Thuk Sarith’s grandfather, Yi Vat said.
The movie crew paid 50,000 riel ($12.80) to Yi Vat and Kim Yun to use their traditional two-story home for one day of filming. In one scene filmed there, the young wife of a man who wants to go to Thailand sells most of the family’s pigs to pay for his journey.
In real-life Dakor village, where Yi Vat and Kim Yun live, there are many stories of success and failure. Along the road that runs past their home, there are at least 10 other villagers that have gone to Thailand. One neighbor brought back more than $1,100, Kim Yun said.
“But some people come back broke,” she said. “And some people even die.”
The 90-minute film will be produced in video format and shown as part of an educational program to Cambodians working in Thailand and in Cambodian provinces where people are most likely to go to Thailand for work. It should be finished by July, Chou Bun Eng said.
“Hopefully this film will help prevent people from being cheated,” said Keo Ratha, assistant director of the movie and a modern drama professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
But as long as there is better pay for work in Thailand, keeping Cambodians from sneaking across the border will be impossible, Pawana Wienrawee said. Warning them, however, is one way to improve their situation.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)