Gov’t Begins Effort to Send Workers Back To Thailand

With Thailand and Cambodia both feeling the pinch from the sudden exodus of more than 200,000 Cambodian workers out of Thailand, the two countries are now working together to try and get them back to their old jobs legally, as fast as possible.

Some 225,000 Cambodians, mostly undocumented, have fled their jobs in Thailand in the past two weeks amid widespread rumors of a crackdown on illegal labor by the Thai Army, which has been ruling the country with an ever-tighter grip since overthrowing the government in Bangkok last month.

Thai businesses have already started to complain of the costly dent that the sudden departures have had on farms, construction sites and seafood factories across the east of the country. In Cambodia, the government is scrambling to find the returnees new jobs and new skills at ill-equipped training centers.

Eager to get them back to Thailand, Prime Minister Hun Sen has signed an order slashing the price of passports for migrant workers from $124 to $4 and promising to have applications processed within 20 days.

On Friday, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng laid out yet more steps Cambodia and Thailand will be taking together to cut down on the time and hassle of getting a work license.

Beginning next month, he said, Thai and Cambodian officials would be working together at three one-stop offices—one each at international checkpoints in Banteay Meanchey, Koh Kong and Pailin provinces—to match workers with Thai employers and issue them the necessary licenses and permits.

“The one-window checkpoints will provide official services from both governments,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “That means Thailand will give us information on which firms in Thailand can use workers from Cambodia legally, so the people who go to work there won’t be worried or scared that they will be mistreated or kicked out.

“Second, the Ministry of Labor will issue the work license to work abroad. With this license, Thailand will issue a work permit for those workers to stay in Thailand and with a company legally. The work will be legal and safe.”

The minister did not say exactly when in July the one-stop service would be up and running or whether the government would drop the cost of a work license, another reason many Cambodians who head to Thailand for work often choose illegal routes.

Banteay Meanchey Governor Kousoum Saroeuth said Sunday that he heard from border officials that the Thai government was also cutting the fee for a work license from the current 20,000 baht (about $616) to 2,000 baht (around $61.60).

“Now I heard that they [migrant workers] will only need 2,000 baht for a work license to work in Thailand for six months,” he said.

With his province alone having to absorb some 27,000 of the new returnees, Mr. Saroeuth was hopeful that the substantial drop in fees would get many of them back to Thailand soon—and legally.

In Kompong Thom province, So An, 11 of whose children, grandchildren and other family members migrated to Thailand seeking work, welcomed the fee cuts, but expressed concern that hidden charges and bribes would still drive prices above the official rate.

“I am worried that they’ll ask for more than what is set. They always say this and that to ask for more money,” she said. “They say $4, but in reality it’s going to be more.”

Ms. An’s daughter On Chhay Eng, who fled Thailand last week fearing arrest, said she was eager to head back at the first chance.

Working construction jobs in Phnom Penh, she said, she could barely earn enough to cover her own expenses. In Thailand, she and her husband were managing to send home over $150 a month, she said.

“I could manage to save some money to send back home for my kids,” she said. “I want to go back to work there. In Cambodia I can’t earn money.”

Along the border, meanwhile, officials on Sunday said daily crossings continued to fall substantially over the weekend from their peak a week ago.

At the Poipet international checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey last weekend, officials said more than 40,000 Cambodians had poured out of Thailand in a single day.

On Sunday, Sem Makara, the checkpoint’s deputy chief of staff for immigration police, said fewer than 7,000 Cambodians came through on Saturday and just under 2,000 had crossed Sunday, as of 3:40 p.m.

According to the government’s official count, at least eight Cambodians have died in traffic accidents while fleeing Thailand or drowned while trying to evade arrest. Accounts from NGOs and witnesses put the number at 10.

The government says 13 Cambodians were also arrested in Thailand last week for allegedly having their work papers endorsed by fake stamps. On Friday, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the 13 were to be sent to court and would be provided with lawyers.

Mr. Kuong could not be reached for comment Sunday. Thailand’s ambassador to Cambodia, Pakdi Touchayoot, said he had received no official information about either the court case or the Thai junta’s efforts to bring the migrant workers who fled the country back legally.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Zsombor Peter)

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