The city has barely awoken Sunday morning when Kim Samnang, with a stick and wicker basket slung over his shoulder, begins his long trek from central Phnom Penh to Russei Keo and Meanchey districts.
At each construction site he passes he asks if there is any work hauling rocks and dirt. But by 11:30 am, the Svay Rieng farmer has returned to a park near Independence Monument, tired and dejected.
Kim Samnang is one of thousands of farmers and rural residents who descend on the streets of the capital each year, hoping to earn a few thousand riel to supplement their incomes at home with work on construction sites or road work projects.
They face numerous hardships throughout their stay in Phnom Penh, but workers interviewed Sunday said there is one more obstacle this year—an economic downturn that has left too many migrants chasing too few jobs.
“People who came here before, never came back [to Svay Rieng],” said Kim Samnang. “I thought it was because they had found a job. But there are too many people looking for work. I think I will not get a job.”
Phon Phat, a 39-year-old farmer from Prey Veng province, said Sunday he has made more than 20 trips to Phnom Penh to find work since 1980. But he said he cannot remember a time when so many people have come to the city at one time to look for work.
Those who come to Phnom Penh seeking work find few opportunities because Cambodia’s economic downturn has reduced the number of jobs available to migrants, according to Variak <jump head> Competition…
Khus, a project coordinator at CARE for a regional study on AIDS and migration.
Since July 1997, when factional fighting erupted in Phnom Penh and currencies around the region began to crash, Cambodia has seen its economy stagnate. Foreign investment and foreign aid have plummeted, as have tourism and tax revenues.
The Gross Domestic Product, which grew at a rate of more than 7 percent in 1995 and 1996, has been forecasted by the Finance Ministry at 3.5 percent this year.
The southeastern provinces of Svay Rieng and Prey Veng have not escaped the economic crisis, Khus said. During a survey CARE conducted in Svay Rieng in December, he said, everyone from taxi drivers to guest house operators complained about the drop in business.
“It has definitely gotten worse there,” Khus said, “and those are two of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. They are desperate.”
There is no official data on how many rural residents leave their homes and farms for Cambodia’s capital each year. Aid workers said Monday they believe the number of people migrating to the capital is about the same this year as compared to recent years. Migrants, however, insist the flow of people has increased.
“This year is much more difficult for people so many are taking taxis to Phnom Penh,” said Phon Phat, a 39-year-old farmer from Prey Veng province.
There are several reasons behind the annual migration. This is always a difficult time of year for farmers, agriculture experts said Monday, because food is less abundant and the fields do not require a lot of work. The current rice crop has just been transplanted and last year’s rice stocks is nearly running out.
Phon Phat and other farmers blamed this year’s woes on a prolonged dry spell, which Agriculture Ministry officials said Sunday is ending in parts of the country but continuing in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng.
Aid workers said there are few job alternatives to farming for people living in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng.
With money tight, Phon Phat said, he has pulled three of his five children from school. His neighbors and friends are putting land, buffalo and personal possessions up for sale. Farmers in Svay Rieng are enduring similar hardships, said Kim Samnang, who sold his family’s cow to pay for medicine when he became ill. Both say there is not enough rice to eat.
The government has initiated some food for work programs in the provinces that can employ up to 500 people per day, Rural Development Undersecretary of State Ngy Chanphal said Monday.
But he acknowledged that both agricultural and non-agricultural jobs need to be created in rural areas, and new approaches will be considered when the ministry meets with NGOs this week to discuss future projects and strategies.
For Kim Samnang, Phon Phat and the other migrants, the only immediate solution, however, is to come to Phnom Penh. Phon Phat and a group of about 40 people who came with him borrowed money to pay the 4,000-riel-per-person taxi-fare from Prey Veng to Phnom Penh. At least 500 riel in interest will have to be paid when they return.
Since his group’s arrival five days ago, Phon Phat said, they have sat waiting in front of Wat Langka, but there have been no job offers.
At night the group sleeps on the grounds of the teacher training school near Wat Langka, where guards sometimes chase them away. During the day they risk being chased from their shaded benches by police, as they were Saturday morning. Food is in short supply and some of Phon Phat’s friends had not eaten in several days. At least one wants to go home but doesn’t have enough money.
Kim Samnang has been sleeping in an open lot near the Education Ministry with his older brother and three cousins since their arrival on Friday. They have also had no luck yet finding work.
His goal was to earn 50,000 riel, but if no work is found in the next week, the family has decided, they will return to Svay Rieng.
“My family will not complain,” he said. “They are worried. They just want us to come home.”