Migrant Workers’ Union to Launch This Month

In an attempt to offer greater protection to the growing number of Cambodians who seek work abroad, a US labor rights organization will establish Cambodia’s first trade union for migrant workers this month, according to its director.

“A purely [migrant] workers-based group doesn’t exist in Cambodia,” said David Welsh, country director at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

Mr Welsh said the organization plans to appoint leaders and draft a constitution ahead of a launch and recruitment drive in Koh Kong province before the end of the month.

“The medium-term vision would be the idea of this organization comprised of migrant workers that would be an advocacy group based here in Cambodia…for migrant workers going anywhere,” he added.

One of the organization’s key challenges will be to advocate for and protect the rights of migrant workers, Mr Welsh said. Initially, that would involve linking with existing migrant workers’ organizations in destination countries, he said.

“The ultimate ideal would be to have Cambodian workers based in those countries representing the organization,” he added.

The new union would also aim to monitor the recruitment process on this side of the border, Mr Welsh said. They hope to work with the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, both to recruit members and to ensure workers’ safety, he said.

A number of recruiters, including some ACRA members, have come under fire in recent months over allegations of torture and forced detention at training centers in Phnom Penh and across the country.

The Community Legal Education Center has conducted investigations into at least 15 separate allegations of abuse at recruitment centers this year.

Moeun Tola, head of the center’s labor project, welcomed the drive to establish a migrant workers’ union. “Those workers should have the right to organize,” he said.

Bruno Maltoni, project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration, said the dearth of available statistics made it difficult to provide support for migrant workers.

“The more we understand about how and why people decide to move, the better we can establish proper programs,” he said.

Recently released data from the Labor Ministry estimate that about 40,000 Cambodian migrant workers have been placed in overseas jobs by legal recruitment firms and estimate that the workers send home about $150 million in remittances annually.

In its 2009 Human Development report, the UNDP estimated that a total of about 335,000 Cambodian were working abroad, including illegal migrants and those with legal residency in another country.

Mr Maltoni said the IOM welcomed the proposed workers’ group.

“This is an interesting idea. Let’s see how they want to develop it,” he said.

An Bunhak, ACRA chairman, said he would be glad to see another organization working on migration issues. “We support this idea. We can help each other to work with the policy of migration,” he said, adding that recruiters would be willing to cooperate with a workers’ group.

“We welcome and are open for them to come and cooperate,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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