Leaving behind life on the farm for a few years to work in the city has long been a rite of passage for many rural Cambodians, but a new study warns that rapid changes in the Kingdom’s social and economic landscape may mean there is no going home for many of Cambodia’s young migrant workers.
Dr Chivoin Peou, who conducted the study while a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that in the 1960s, it became common for country dwellers to venture into the cities to find occasional work. The practice was stifled by the upheavals of the following decades, but following the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, sojourning became common practice once more.
Peou said that while many in the countryside grew up dreaming of the relative wealth available to them in the city, the majority still wanted to go back at some point because “they identify as rural people”.
However, young people were finding it harder to break free of the gravitational pull of the Kingdom’s urban centres, particularly Phnom Penh, he said.
Today, 70 per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas, but one in four rural households has a family member who has left to find work elsewhere, 57 per cent of whom have moved to Cambodia’s cities.
In his paper’s conclusion, Peou wrote that “the trend appears towards more migrants ending up staying longer in the city than they initially expected or even settling in the city permanently”.
“Continuing urban expansion, commercialisation of agriculture, and development projects . . . have begun to change the rural spaces in ways that small farmers are losing control over their traditional way of life . . . [such that] the countryside no longer offers a safety net for migrant labourers in the city to fall back on.”
For some, such as So Sopheakna, 24, this is not a problem. Sopheakna moved to the capital from Kampong Cham province three years ago to earn money for her hard-up farming family.
For most of her time in Phnom Penh she has worked in a garment factory for $200 a month. It is not a lot, but she manages to save a little to send home to her parents and gets to live in the city.
“Everything is fantastic,” she said. “I can earn my own [living] and have my independence.”
But others, like 20-year-old Hel Vet, still hope to return to the countryside in spite of the city’s material advantages.
“I want to move back to my homeland to teach English to the children,” he said. “Working at the garage is a temporary job for me, I want to be a teacher in my homeland.”
Most of the migrant workers Peou spoke to planned to return home when they married, using the money they saved in the city to build better homes for their family or small businesses to support them.
One interviewee had already tried, but after having a son two years ago, he had returned with his new wife to Phnom Penh to seek work, leaving their child with his grandparents.
Peou was reluctant to predict the potential consequences of this mass migration to the Kingdom’s urban centres, but he did say that he had already noticed unease at the changing face of the capital.
“Obviously, cultural tension is there, in the way people dress and so forth,” he said. “I don’t want to put it in words, but it is there.”
“After the Veng Sreng protests, there was a subtle feeling that the presence of these people created a sense of disorder,” he said, referencing the January 2014 garment worker protests that turned violent, resulting in four deaths, allegedly after being fired upon by security forces.