Labor Minister Announces Plans to Reform Migrant Permit Process

More than 100,000 Cambodians are working in Thailand illegally, Labor Minister Vong Sauth said yesterday, offering a rare glimpse at government figures on a murky segment of the Cambodian diaspora.

Responding to a list of labor-related questions the opposition submitted to the National Assembly last week, Mr Sauth also told the Assembly that the figure outstripped the 83,000 Cambodians currently working in Thailand legally.

“There are more than 100,000 Cambodians who work in Thailand illegally and we are working with our Thai counterparts to legalize them,” he said.

Mr Sauth said the two countries’ labor ministries were in the process of organizing a meeting for mid-November at which they hoped to finalize reforms to the permitting process the neighbors us to let Cambodian laborers into Thailand. The labor minister offered no details about the meeting or how the current process would change.

“The main point is we are trying to reduce the illegal border crossing of people who live near the border and are in the habit of going to work in Thailand in the morning and returning in the evening, and also the seasonal workers,” he said.

Contacted afterward, Labor Ministry secretary of state Oum Mean referred questions about the plan to the ministry’s general directorate, where director-general Seng Kakada and deputy secretary-general Hou Vuthy declined to comment.

Mr Sauth’s remarks came in reply to a series of 18 questions the SRP submitted touching on a range of labor issues. SRP officials stormed out of the session before hearing the minister’s answers, however, in protest of the National Assembly’s refusal to let them begin by reading their questions aloud.

Andy Hall, the Bangkok-based director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation’s migrant justice program, said his NGO had no comparable figures on illegal laborers from Cambodia. But given the persistent demand for low-wage labor in Thailand and its long, porous border with Cambodia, he added, “the figure that the minister gave sounds quite reasonable.”

The figure also hovers within the neighborhood of the 90,000 illegal Cambodian workers departed from Thailand through the Poipet border crossing in all of 2009, according to the Banteay Meanchey provincial labor and vocational training department.

Unlike last year, however, the new figure comes amid a crackdown on illegal laborers the Thai government announced in June.

Rights groups criticize the current permitting process for seasonal and day laborers as overly bureaucratic and too expensive, especially when brokers are ready to smuggle laborers across the border at a fraction of the price. They also warn that entering illegally puts workers at increased risk of trafficking other exploitation. Without any details of Cambodia’s and Thailand’s new plans for the permits, though, Mr Hall was hesitant to back the idea.

“It depends how they manage the policy,” he said.

Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean hadn’t heard of the plan yesterday, either, but welcomed the news.

“[Now] only Poipet City citizens can get into Thailand legally, so other people cross illegally,” he said. “It will be very good to have the identification passes for all people, so they can all work legally and easily in Thailand without concern for their safety and security.”

Thai Ambassador to Cambodia Prasas Prasasvinitchai refused to speak with a reporter over the phone. Supachai Jaisamunt, spokesman for Thailand’s Interior Ministry in Bangkok, declined to comment and referred questions to other officials, who could not be reached.

The local office of the International Organization for Migration could not be reached, either.

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