Trying Their Luck

With Rice Prices Low, Farmers Come to Phnom Penh for Work

samrong village – Twenty-eight-year-old Mao Thy begins most mornings in a thatch-walled stilt house here, rising before dawn to help his father in the family’s rice paddies.

About the time the birds are stirring, they are walking through this quiet village of 130 families in Masang district, Prey Veng province. Paddies ripple for kilometers in all directions, a tranquil patchwork of vibrant greens and silvery water.

But three or four times a year, Mao Thy wakes to a starkly different scene: the noise and hustle around Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.

To the beeps and shouts of passing traffic, Mao Thy and dozens of others rise from their beds on the ground inside Wat Lanka, where they sleep because it is free and relatively safe.

Dodging cars and motos on Sihanouk Boulevard, they cross to the northeastern corner, where they join about 200 other men from the provinces looking for work.

They seem forlorn, far from everything they hold dear. If they are lucky, a foreman will pull up and offer them a job for the day. If they are not, they may walk the streets looking for work, or sit on the rubbish-strewn ground in the heat, playing cards and spending precious money on food.

It takes Mao Thy five hours to travel over sometimes wretched roads from Samrong to the city. “It is necessary for me to go to Phnom Penh,’’ he said. “If I didn’t, we would have no money at all. We can’t make enough money off the rice to support ourselves.’’

Although rice farming is harder work, Mao Thy would rather be at home, working in the paddies. His friend Thol Thea, 22, agreed.

“We never have a good place to sleep’’ in the city, he said. “Sometimes we must sleep on the streets, something like that. It is quite difficult to live.’’

They know the city holds worse dangers. They said they know about AIDS, and never go to the brothels, but they know others who sometimes get drunk and do.

The size of the migrant army varies depending on the time of year, and the conditions in the country. During planting or harvest season, they farm. When they can be spared, they come to the city to try their luck.

It’s a precarious existence. A good construction job pays from 7,000 to 8,000 riel per day ($1.85-$2.10), but there’s no guarantee of getting one. On days when there’s no work to be had, men still must eat, and a meal runs from 1,500-3,000 riel ($0.40-$0.80).

The men can usually buy food from vendors on credit, but after three or four days without work, both parties get edgy. One evening meal, shared recently by about a dozen migrants from the Prey Veng area, was almost exclusively rice.

Mao Thy said on average, he finds work about half the time. He used to walk the streets looking for work if no foreman came by at dawn to hire him, but no longer does so.

Foremen who come looking for workers pay their transportation costs, he said, while any job he finds himself—and they are hard to find—usually involves a moto taxi ride, which wrecks his budget.

Mao Thy usually stays a month or so in the city, and considers it a good trip if he takes home 100,000 riel (about $26).

“That’s a lot of money’’ in the village, Thol Thea said.

But some can’t seem to catch a break. Mol Sophal, a 32-year-old father of four from Svay Rieng province, said he walks around the city every morning, carrying his hoe and dirt basket. “If I can’t find something to do, sometimes I ask people for money,’’ he said.

Chan Ramei, 27, said he has been looking for a week, to no avail. But he can’t go home without money, so he said he will stay until he finds work.

And luck can change. Sum Sok, 42, landed a good job in his first week and earned 20,000 riel ($5.25), but had to spend it all on food over the next two weeks, when there was no work to be had.

Mob Sarin, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said the city has no problem with men who are legitimately trying to find work. “We are not angry with them,’’ he said. “They come here because there are no other jobs for them in the provinces.’’

But in Mao Thy’s village, the families of the migrant workers wonder why it has to be this way. They all tell the same story: they grow rice on every available scrap of land, but it is no longer enough to feed them all year, and they have no cash to buy fertilizer or other necessities.

Mao Thy’s wife, Mao Thoen, will deliver their first child in a few weeks. “I’m worried when he leaves, about whether he will be safe in the city, and is he earning the money we need for fertilizer?’’ she said.

They have no telephone, so when he’s gone, she doesn’t know when she will see him again. They have no electricity or running water, and she misses his help so late in her pregnancy.

Her neighbor, Uch Savueon, has said goodbye many times before but still finds it difficult. “I am so worried about something happening to my sons, but they have to go,’’ she said. “We have six children in the family, and we need the money.’’

Older residents said the young men never used to leave. They said the migration began with the arrival of highly paid UN personnel in the early 1990s, which sparked a boom in Phnom Penh.

In the years since, conditions have changed. While boom times come and go in Phnom Penh, the price of rice has fallen, while families have grown too big for the land to support.

Mao Thy’s father, Khot Soun, is 52. He has never had to go to Phnom Penh to work; he’s never even gone to Phnom Penh. He has been a rice farmer all his life, and he loves his work.

“I am a good farmer,’’ he said. “I check my rice every day.’’

His sons work with him when they can. He wishes they did not have to go to the city, although he says they are good boys, and he trusts them to behave well. He knows he is getting the best yield he can from their land, but it’s just not enough.

“I have eight children,’’ he said, “and I must divide the rice between them.’’



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