Between 3,000 and 4,000 Cambodians are currently residing in South Korea illegally after their employment contracts or visas expired, leaving many of them vulnerable to exploitation by employers, Long Dimanche, Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea, said on Wednesday.
Mr. Dimanche said there were about 53,000 Cambodian workers living in South Korea, and some had overstayed their visas—which are attached to employment contracts and can last a maximum of four years and 10 months—by up to 10 years. Only 30 to 40 nationals have been repatriated during the 11 months he has served as ambassador, he added.
The Cambodian Embassy has been cooperating “with South Korean authorities and police to announce to Cambodian people that once the contracts are finished, please go back and…don’t live illegally,” he said.
He said the illegal workers faced arrest and being blacklisted by South Korea, while their undocumented status left them open to exploitation by employers such as being paid lower wages.
A South Korean work visa for Cambodians lasts two years and five months, he said, after which the worker can extend the visa for the same period of time.
However, Moeun Tola, the head of labor rights group Central, said the high figure of undocumented Cambodians in South Korea was probably due to strict visa conditions.
“In the [memorandum of understanding] between the Cambodian and South Korean governments, the worker is not allowed to change the workplace or the employer,” he said.
When Cambodians arrive at their workplaces in South Korea, “if it’s not what they expected, they cannot find assistance, so the only option is to run away from that workplace and find [another] job,” he said. The employer then terminates the contract, “meaning they become an illegal worker, even though their visa or work permit is still valid,” he added.
Mr. Tola recommended that the Cambodian government renegotiate the terms of the working visas, allowing Cambodian migrants to swap jobs if working conditions are poor or different from those stated when they applied.
Mr. Dimanche said some Cambodian workers stayed away from Sunday’s Khmer New Year celebration, the first held in South Korea, out of fear they might be arrested for being in the country illegally.
Any Cambodian workers arrested by South Korean immigration police would be provided with travel documents by the embassy, he said; however, they would have to pay for their own flight home.
If they cannot afford a plane ticket, one option was to work for the South Korean immigration department’s detention center, Mr. Dimanche said, where they could earn a salary and save for the flight.