The vision regional leaders have for an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 may become clearer after this week’s Economic Ministers meeting in Siem Reap, but not everyone has a rose-coloured view of what such integration might mean for Cambodia.
“My peers are really concerned that other countries have many more skills and higher study levels,” National Institute of Business student Chan Kakada, 22, said yesterday, ahead of Prime Minister Hun Sen officially opening the meeting today.
Students who have not mastered the English language also fear employment opportunities will fade in the face of stiffer competition for English skills, Kakada, who hopes to one day open her own travel agency, said.
“If Cambodian students can’t compete with other ASEAN countries, maybe in the future [Cambodians] will be jobless after ‘ASEAN-alisation’,” she said, using a term coined by one of her professors, who urges students to study hard and choose their subjects carefully so they can compete in a regional labour market when the AEC’s free movement of skilled labour agreement comes into effect.
The AEC’s proposed labour agreement – to facilitate work permits and relax foreign worker quotas – being discussed at the economic minister’s meeting only includes certain skilled sectors: architecture, engineering, accounting, surveying, medicine and tourism.
University students may have reason to fear, experts say. But, ultimately, few Cambodians have technical skills that will be impacted under the AEC labour agreement, Kang Chandararot, head of the economics unit at independent analyst group Cambodia Institute of Development Study, said.
“The issue is how many skilled labourers we can produce when 80 per cent of labour in the economy is in rural areas,” he said.
“Because of seasonal unemployment and the dependence on a subsistence economy of Cambodian rural households, it is very difficult to promote the benefits of acquiring more skills,” Chandararot said, emphasising that for Cambodians to upskill into technical fields like surveying or medicine, there needs to be a tangible incentive to do so. Without such an incentive, the Cambodian labour market will “not be able to absorb benefits from integration”, he said.
In a country where 50 per cent of the workforce has not finished primary school, AEC integration will be a challenge for Cambodia, but also a chance to catch up, according to Sok Siphanna, adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
But Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at Cambodian NGO Community Legal Education Center, said, “What I can see at the moment is Cambodia has not done anything yet in terms of improvement of human resource quality, in terms of skilled workers and knowledgeable people, in order to pick up good jobs.”
Under current conditions, as ASEAN economies integrate, Cambodia may get stuck supplying other countries with unskilled labour, which current agreements don’t regulate or protect, while foreign workers take skilled jobs, Tola said.
“2015 is a little bit early for Cambodia [to integrate] if you look at the situation,” he said.
Even professionals from sectors included in the labour integration agreement said they were unaware of the pending changes.
“Especially private businesses, they just think of themselves, not with respect to ASEAN or 2015,” Koam Sinoun, who is a dentist in private practice and also a Ministry of Health official, said.
“[Private practices] are working to improve, not with respect to the ASEAN plan, but just separately, for the needs of the country,” Sinoun said. However, this two-steam approach is ultimately counterproductive in the face of regional integration, and the Asian Development Bank and labour and education ministries are trying to encourage private businesses to implement regional standardised certification toward an AEC “common framework for quality assurance”, said Mar Sophea, ADB senior social sector officer.
A Labour Ministry and ADB initiative, for example, offers technical and vocational education and training certification to secondary level students at 38 sites across the country.
This program, which focuses on construction, car repair and internet technology with business applications, faces a tough task, since even aspiring professionals tend to pursue administrative rather than technical skills, according to ADB and ministry materials.
ASEAN programs like the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) also are encouraging skills acquisition in Cambodia, said director of ASEAN’s integration monitoring office Aladdin Rillo. The IAI’s investment and development programs broadly seek to close the “development gap” between the original “ASEAN-6” and the less-developed member states of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.
“But these are actually national issues,” Rillo said. “If countries are not able to implement these changes, they will still have the same problems.” For this reason, he said, “I think realistically there will be some short-term adverse effects of the economic integration.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at [email protected]