Most Migrant Workers Leave Illegally, Report Says

Policy measures are needed to protect laborers abroad

Nearly all laborers from Cam­bodia who go to work abroad do so through illegal channels, leaving thousands vulnerable to exploitation, physical abuse and imprisonment, according to a report re­leased Wednesday by the Cam­bo­dia De­velopment Resource Institute.

The report came amid heightened public scrutiny of recruiting firms, many of which are accused of illegally confining trainees awaiting assignments as migrant laborers.

According to the report, fewer than 5 percent of Cambodia’s mi­grant laborers leave the country legally and with proper paperwork, even though laws and agreements with surrounding countries have been put in place to protect their rights abroad.

“Chronic poverty, landlessness, lack of access to markets and common property resources, natural disasters, unexpected shocks caused by sickness, and lack of job opportunities have placed great pressure on rural people, especially the poor, to migrate in search of opportunities to enhance their livelihoods and economic welfare,” the report said.

“Informal or illegal placement is the prevailing practice, and in most cases, is facilitated by pioneer migrants or brokers who escort migrants to a workplace in the destination country.”

Between 2003 and 2009, 43,053 Cambodian migrants were officially sent to work abroad in Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, according to the report. But at least another 100,000 were working overseas without authorization.

Of all those sent legally, 52 percent went to Malaysia, 34 percent to Thailand and 14 percent to South Korea.

According to Labor Ministry figures, the total number of legal migrants to leave Cambodia in 2009—the latest year for which figures are available—was 13,225, of which only 2,844 were men.

If CDRI’s estimate that fewer than 5 percent of migrant workers leave the country legally is accurate, then more than 250,000 Cambodians may have left the country through informal channels in 2009 alone.

Officials here said in January that more than 100,000 illegal Cambodian migrant workers were deported by Thai authorities via Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet border crossing in 2010.

Human rights workers say irregular migrants are often the most vulnerable and poor members of society and are in most cases are susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

“Cambodian migrant workers who enter other countries without documents face a litany of dangers connected with having no rights and facing a life on the run,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, wrote in an e-mail. “But for many, it is a life without rights, where one twist or turn, once chance meeting with a policeman, one deception or ruse, can ruin their situation.”

Mr Robertson said cases he had personally witnessed included brokers or employers trafficking laborers into forced labor on fishing boats, sex work and factories. He said he had also seen workers arrested by police in Thailand and Malaysia, who then steal the migrant’s belongings and often subject them to physical abuse.

CDRI’s report listed poor wages, withholding of passports, physical confinement, poor working conditions and a threat of denunciation to authorities as common abuses.

In order to prevent abuse, experts say diplomats abroad need to provide more consular assistance and the government should enforce stricter laws on the protection of both formal and informal workers.

It is only very recently that Cambodia has adopted any policy measures specifically focused on labor migration. In 2006, the Labor Ministry launched a four-year plan to bolster overseas employment services, create employment permits and protect workers. Then, midway through last year, the government endorsed another document aimed at protecting workers’ rights.

The policy includes plans to establish resource centers nationwide to give information on labor migration as well as legal sanctions against unethical recruitment practices.

Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, said the number of laborers being sent abroad legally was increasing through proper training programs and the dissemination of information about the risks of working abroad.

He also disagreed with figures in the report showing that illegal migrant workers outnumber legal ones.

“I strongly believe that at the current stage, the percentage of legal migrant workers is much higher than illegal migrant workers,” he said. “We educate and provide them with information and contact details for the embassy in those countries.”

According to the CDRI report, Cambodian authorities have little ability to protect workers. Migration policy has not yet been integrated into the national development plan, and sanctions against recruitment agencies that flout human rights are limited.

“The regulatory framework governing migration in Cambodia is also widely seen as vague, with most provisions being broad and lacking in clarity,” the report said.

The report also said private recruitment agencies here operated in a “self-discretionary manner” and with “no strict legal verification and no active monitoring of their recruitment activities.”

Police on Tuesday announced that they were seeking to prosecute a Phnom Penh labor company, T&P Co, for illegal confinement of trainees. Earlier this month, a trainee broke bones in both legs while trying to escape the recruitment agency in Phnom Penh. Two days later, a 35-year-old recruit died at the center and others complained of being illegally confined.

It would appear that, whether workers go through illegal or legal channels, their rights are at risk.

“The prevalence of multifaceted migration problems reflects the urgent need to design appropriate policy interventions for effective management and better protection of migrants,” the report said.



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