PREY CHHOR DISTRICT, Kompong Cham/STONG DISTRICT, Kompong Thom – Chhe Noy, a migrant worker who arrived back in her village in Kompong Cham province from Thailand this week, can’t stop stroking her 8-year-old daughter’s hair. Every few minutes, she plants a kiss on the girl’s cheek.
“I missed her so much,” said Ms. Noy, 29, who left Mien commune for Thailand in May 2013. “That’s why I keep kissing her. But soon I will go back to Thailand. I need to make money for her.”
Over 150,000 Cambodian migrant workers like Ms. Noy have fled Thailand in the past week after reports of a crackdown on illegal laborers by the military junta. The Cambodian government is urging them to seek schooling at its vocational training centers and find work in Cambodia, but many are still planning to head back to Thailand at the first opportunity.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Tuesday that the returning workers should help the Cambodian economy.
“Maybe they have some experience from Thailand, so the Ministry of Labor made press releases to train them for a short time,” he said in a speech at a graduation ceremony. “They can work hard and find [jobs] in the labor market because now the labor market lacks workers, so we open up the chance for them, and they can help build the economy in Cambodia.”
But Ms. Noy, who entered Thailand illegally and was making about $9.50 per day there as a bricklayer, nearly double what she could make here, said the government’s training centers are not a viable option for her.
“I cannot go to the training centers,” said Ms. Noy, who now plans to find a temporary job before returning to Thailand once the situation calms. “If I go to the center, I won’t be making money for my family.”
The programs at the center are free, but Ms. Noy cannot go without pay and cannot afford transportation between her village and the center, which lacks funds to build dormitories for students.
Kompong Cham’s department of labor and vocational training said 521 legal workers left the province for work in Thailand in 2012, the latest available figures. The department does not track illegal workers, but police estimate nearly 4,000 migrants have returned to the province this week.
So An, 62, who also lives in Ms. Noy’s village, said she has 11 children, grandchildren and in-laws working in Thailand, only two legally. None are planning to visit training centers upon their return to Cambodia.
“It’s impossible. We need everyone to work,” she said. “If one person goes to the training center we lose money and we cannot afford that.”
Ms. An said if the government were to offer a salary on top of free training, people might be more inclined to sign up.
But at the Kompong Cham provincial vocational training center, officials are already struggling to sustain the programs they are running.
“We don’t have enough resources,” said Eng Nora, chief of the center’s training office.
“The markets move very fast but we don’t keep up. We don’t have the latest versions of some equipment,” he said.
The center offers courses in subjects including tailoring, hairstyling, motorbike and appliance repair, fish husbandry, and English.
But Mr. Nora said students sometimes leave the center only partly trained—without the proper knowledge to repair the latest motorbikes, air conditioners or washing machines, for example.
“We need more time with them,” he said. “The courses are not long enough.”
There are nearly 40 training centers in Cambodia, which feed students into just six job centers upon graduation from mechanical, agricultural or service industry programs.
Sok Sarem, chief of the Kompong Cham job center, said he usually finds jobs for three or four graduates out of every 10.
“Sometimes even after doing the training they’re not qualified enough for the jobs,” he said.
Officials from the National Training Board declined to be interviewed for this story. The Labor Ministry spokesman, Heng Suor, said he was in Seoul and could not discuss the situation at length.
“The government is trying its best to provide [the workers] with options,” Mr. Suor said. He added the government has a jobs creation “package” ready but refused to go into details.
Sot Samoth, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, said workers can either attend classes at the centers or work in their villages.
“They can work in the rice fields,” he said. “If they want to work, people are very busy with the rice fields.”
In Kompong Thom province, police said more than 4,000 workers have returned to Stong district, more than 1,000 of them in Preah Damrei commune alone. Villagers here are also uninterested in the training centers.
Chean Yor, a rice farmer in Loek village, travels between Cambodia and Thailand seasonally. It’s a system she said she’s been using for at least five years now, and the way she managed to pay for her house.
“If I work only in the rice fields, I make only enough for eating,” said Ms. Yor, a 35-year-old mother of three. “I need more money for my kids—to build a home and pay for electricity and medical expenses.”
Ms. Yor, her husband and her 17-year-old son were working in Thailand this month, but she returned with her son this week because they had entered the country illegally.
Her husband, who entered legally, stayed behind because the family cannot afford to lose his $15-a-day salary as a construction-materials driver.
“I don’t see the opportunity of having a job here, even after training,” said Ms. Yor, who was earning $9.50 per day as a concrete finisher on construction sites in Thailand.
Tun Sophorn, the International Labor Organization’s national coordinator in Cambodia, said there are jobs in the country for returning workers, but they are generally not attractive.
“The challenge is the wage,” Mr. Sophorn said. “The wages in Cambodia are much lower than the wages in Thailand.”
Mr. Sophorn said workers could find work in garment factories, which they are not eager to do because the salary is too low, or as small-engine repairmen, where there are many openings for skilled workers.
“We’re going to have to reskill these workers,” said Mr. Sophorn. “The training needs to be good to find a job.”
But Ek Hieng, director of the Kompong Thom training center, said his center is lacking qualified mechanic trainers and getting older students to attend school is difficult.
“Most of them ask for food and lodging,” said Mr. Hieng. “This is the problem because we do not have the budget for that.”
Back in Ms. Noy’s village, her daughter does not want to leave her side, pressing her face into her mother’s stomach any time Ms. Noy walks away.
“I left her because of desperation,” Ms. Noy said.
“I want to provide for her.”