The Constructive Cambodian
Lift's senior writers comment on key issues in the Kingdom
Tong Soprach explains how immmigration reform and improved employment must go hand in hand.
At any given time at the Phnom Penh International Airport or the Kingdom’s borders with Thailand and Vietnam, young Cambodians can be found streaming out of the Kingdom to find work abroad. Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam are but some of the places that Cambodian youth depart for seeking employment opportunities not available in Cambodia, in order to support their families back home.
One explanation for this exodus, espoused by people of a protectionist persuasion, is that there are too many illegal immigrants; many from the same countries Cambodians are going to, who are living and working in the Kingdom. This argument suggests that foreigners are snatching up jobs that would otherwise employ young Cambodians.
There is an immigration law and labour law in place that threatens illegal workers with deportation if found out, but as with many laws in the Kingdom it’s enforcement is inconsistent. But if employment is a priority of the government, why aren’t they cracking down in the same way that Thailand and Vietnam have recently done to Cambodians illegally working in their countries?
Instead of serving its intended purposes, the immigration law, which was approved in 1994, serves the ruling party’s political agenda. For example, when 20 Uighur refugees seeking asylum in Cambodia were deported back to China by Cambodian authorities last December, the aforementioned law was used to support the decision, despite the fact that human rights groups and international agencies said that Cambodia was violating international law when they sent the refugees back to their homeland. Two Red Shirt activists suspected of involvement in a bombing attack in Bangkok were sent back to Thailand in July this year, and just last week the Cambodian government announced the closure of a UNHCR shelter where 62 Vietnamese Montangard refugees are waiting for asylum. The immigration law has proven useful in these high profile situations, but the number of immigrants involved is somewhat insignificant when compared with the number of illegal workers who go unnoticed.
The laws most important purpose, to ensure that Cambodians are first in line for any job openings, is not happening. One field where this trend is particularly alarming is in manufacturing, where the cost of training, quality control, utilities, salaries and taxation make it very difficult for entrepreneurs to generate employment opportunities. Although the government has stepped in to support some sectors, rice producers being a recent example, the state rarely provides assistance to people in the private sector, and therefore investors are often unable to get their business off the ground before they have to shut it down.
A friend of mine was doing quite well with a paper production plant that employed 30 of his fellow countrymen, however; the costs he had to incur each month to keep the business afloat were simply too much and now, he runs a tourism business with two employees. He had to tell the other 28 people who relied on his business for their livelihood that they were out of a job. Not an easy reality to face given the difficulty reentering the workforce in the current economic climate.
There is some hope, though, for young Cambodians. For those who wish to pursue further education but miss out on government scholarships, a few banks and microfinance institutions are now offering low interest loans to students. An increasing number of the wealthy owners of private universities are also giving loans from their own pocket to be paid back upon graduation. With luck, this will help reduce youth unemployment in Cambodia. Especially because, according to World Bank estimations, the Kingdom’s economic growth is only able to generate about 30,000 new jobs each year, when the number of young people entering the work force has increased to about 300,000 per year.
If nothing is done to address this issue, further nationwide youth unemployment and internal unrest will ensue. Therefore, while there are existing measures to curb this problem, they need to be expanded upon. The government should look to enforce the immigration law more rigorously to curb illegal foreign workers in Cambodia. This will help reduce the number of young Cambodians who are forced to make the migration in the other direction. It is not only the job of the government however, domestic businesses and banks must also ensure that they are creating as many jobs as possible for Cambodian workers. One job may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it is a chance for a struggling Cambodian to get on their feet, and that is truly something worth standing up for.
Q: Are illegal immigrants stopping Cambodians from getting jobs?