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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In debt, out of work

Migrant labourers sort fish on a boat in Thailand’s Rayong province
Migrant labourers sort fish on a boat in Thailand’s Rayong province. A growing number of Cambodians seeking such opportunities are being taken advantage of by recruiters who fail to deliver. AFP

In debt, out of work

They save for months, borrowing from family and friends, even taking out loans, to pour as much as a year’s worth of earnings into the hands of recruiters that may have no intention and certainly have no guarantee of procuring overseas employment.

Recruitment agencies, several of which have already earned the industry a dubious reputation for engaging in human trafficking, forced labour and other human rights violations, have found another way to exploit the thousands of Cambodians desperate to cash in on neighbouring Thailand’s labour shortage. The firms, only some of which operate under a legal licence, charge workers fees of up to $750, allegedly to arrange travel documents and transportation, and then tell the workers to wait as a placement is arranged.

“They wait one month, six months and then 12 months. The company says ‘just be patient; we are waiting also’. But later, when the workers call, they have switched off their phone. When they try to visit, the company has moved,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center. He said the centre has logged a dozen complaints this year, and believes the sham is increasingly common – a suspicion confirmed by several other organisations noting the same trend.

Chhoun Vanndy, 23, was one of many to get caught in the scam. After returning from harsh conditions as a domestic worker in Malaysia, she heard a radio announcement soliciting workers for Thailand. She borrowed $630 to pay for passports for herself, her husband and her cousin, and was promised a job match within three months.

“The agency promised to pay us each 300 baht ($10) per day . . . Now, about a year later, we’re still waiting for the agency to send us,” Vanndy said. Meanwhile, she owes $20 a month in interest, money she says she doesn’t have.

Sometimes workers aren’t sent because the firm has taken on more workers than the overseas client needs; sometimes there really is no job.

“They never return the money. The agencies never say it’s about profit. They say it was used for documents or something else, but who knows? They aren’t asked to prove it,” said Mom Sokchar, program officer at Legal Support for Women and Children.

But the industry is profitable enough: in 2009, there were just 19 registered overseas job recruiters; now, there are 49.

With more and more fishermen lured by the promise of more lucrative waters abroad, those who cannot find the means to pay agencies seek out the services of a broker who promises no fee for an illegal border crossing and work on the other side. But just as often those brokers sell their clients into forced labour, enslaving them with debts for making the arrangements.

“At least if they go through a recruitment agency and have a problem, there’s a record and we can coordinate with the firm, which under their [memorandum of understanding] says they have to resolve problems,” said Chan Saron, project manager at NGO Chab Dai. “But with the brokers . . . they’re even more vulnerable to trafficking.”

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour said the ministry is aware of agencies charging hefty fees and not delivering employment but could not do anything unless complaints are filed with the name of the accused company.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR

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