In June, after about a quarter million migrant workers returned from their jobs in Thailand fearing the military junta’s crackdown on illegal labor, Cambodia’s government announced it had slashed the cost of emigration, and would charge workers only $49 to legally return to work across the border.
But Srey Pech, a recruitment agency manager, is charging migrant workers up to $600 to help them find work in Thailand.
Ms. Pech, who claims to be the manager of a B.S.R.O. Best Manpower franchise, one of the private recruitment agencies enlisted by the government to implement its policy, is raking in hundreds of dollars from workers looking to obtain passports, visas and transportation into Thailand, where a job hopefully awaits them.
“I’m not really sure where the money goes,” said Ms. Pech, sitting outside her home, which also acts as her office, in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao commune. “It’s up to my boss. I cannot really talk much because we are using the other company’s name.”
As one of its measures to ease workers’ return to Thailand, the government slashed the price of passports for migrant laborers from $124 to $4. The remainder of the $49 is meant to go toward visas, letters of certification and transportation to Thailand.
But the Ministry of Labor outsourced the legwork of its plan to 47 private recruitment agencies and says there are no measures in place to ensure the firms are following the prices or procedures laid out by the government.
Asked what the Labor Ministry was doing to ensure compliance among the private firms, ministry spokesman Heng Suor said: “I don’t know how you can come up with such a stupid question.”
“Unless they do something wrong, then you can catch,” he said. “The agencies are operating under the ministry. As of now, no agency has violated the agreement. If you know of one, please tell us.”
Last week, a group of 50 migrant workers piled onto a bus in Choam Chao commune thinking they had hired the services of 168 Manpower Supply, another agency listed in the government’s scheme.
The workers expected to be provided with passports and visas and taken to Thailand to get jobs there. Instead, the people helping them were arrested and charged with human trafficking. The would-be workers were $200 poorer and still without work.
Duch Sothearith, president of 168 Manpower, refused to comment on the incident and referred the question to his lawyer, Ty Lin.
Mr. Lin claims the 168 Manpower office in Choam Chao was once a franchise, but that Mr. Sothearith ordered it closed months ago.
Ministry of Labor spokesman Mr. Suor acknowledged that unlicensed agencies are a problem.
“There are many cases where people open offices using the company’s name without their knowledge,” he said.
At least eight agencies listed by the government are no longer operating, according to former directors, employees and neighbors of empty office buildings. A number of the agencies that are still operating said they are not implementing the government’s policy because they either do not know how it works or because it is too time-consuming for workers anxious to return to their jobs in Thailand.
“The process is taking too long,” said James Kosem, managing director of Cambodian Labor Supply, of the government’s plan to return workers to Thailand legally. “The workers want to go illegally.”
More than 15,500 illegal migrant workers were caught sneaking across the Thai-Cambodian border in July, according to Kousoum Saroeuth, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, where the majority of illegal migrant workers returned from Thailand.
Mr. Kosem, whose firm is among the 47 tasked with returning workers to Thailand, said the Labor Ministry’s policy is too complicated and he has yet to process a single subsidized passport application.
The subsidized emigration policy requires workers to provide the Ministry of Labor with a letter of employment from a recruitment agency or a Thai employer.
The ministry then issues its own certification letter and both letters must be presented to the passport department to receive a $4 passport. The process takes a minimum of 20 days.
Ms. Pech, who operates out of her house under the B.S.R.O. Best Manpower name, however, said she can request the passport department to process a passport for her clients in three, 10, or 50 days, for about $380, $270 and $100 respectively.
She charges about $200 for the additional documents and services necessary for workers to enter Thailand.
“We give some money to the big company and sometimes we charge more money because we need to get the passport fast,” Ms. Pech said.
Mao Chan Dara, the director of the Ministry of Interior’s passport department, said that passports take 15 days to turn around, and denied that extra money could speed up the process.
“I am not denying that there are a few tricky officials,” he said. “We are correcting it.”
Mr. Chan Dara said his department has only received about 500 requests for the $4 passports since the policy was announced on June 24.
“I would like to appeal to the people that if they want to have a passport processed, they should come to the [passport office] by themselves,” he said. “If they go through a company, they will charge you as they want.”
Mr. Chan Dara added that monitoring the agencies is the Ministry of Labor’s responsibility.
An Bunhak, director of the Top Manpower recruitment agency, said he had been told that agencies enlisted by the government are not allowed to have franchises.
“We can have our licenses suspended or revoked if we do,” he said. “I’ve been approached to grant a sub-license [for a franchise], but I always refuse because if I do I’m sure they will not follow the law.”
Mr. Bunhak, who claims his company has sent 500 subsidized applications to the passport department so far, said there is nothing stopping agencies from abusing their roles as middlemen in the movement of workers to Thailand.
“The government is not strictly monitoring us,” he said. “But if something happens and someone files a complaint, then they will investigate.”