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Cambodian migrant workers
Cambodian migrant workers in the border town of Poipet wait on military trucks to be transported back to their home provinces after flooding across the border from Thailand. Vireak Mai

Home no haven for migrant workers

Almost all of the men from Banteay Chhmar commune in Banteay Meanchey province are gone, swept back over the border to Thailand even more suddenly than their brief homecoming last month.

Nearly 380 of the commune residents, mostly men, had returned from Thailand among the swell of repatriated workers that saw more than 250,000 Cambodian migrants flee the junta, officials say. But unlike the majority of their fellow undocumented migrant labourers, the Banteay Chmmar group got lucky: As they struggled to find jobs locally, their Thai employer called them back.

As Thailand began rolling out a new, temporary system to register migrant workers this month, thousands of Cambodians have attempted to make their way back to better-paying jobs in the more robust neighbouring economy. But most returned migrants have found their efforts stymied, as Thailand only allows workers across with a passport or border pass and an employer to vouch for them.

“The ones lucky enough to be in contact with their employer in Thailand can return, the others go to their homeland and they can’t find jobs. Some girls are forced to work as prostitutes, some migrants are forced to beg,” said Rith Sacha, a safe migration program coordinator at Samaritan’s Purse. “They think their best option is to go abroad with a broker.”

But travelling with a broker has become even less of a surefire route abroad: Rights groups estimate that for every two workers trying to slip across undocumented, one is caught.

“It’s still a very low number that can go back to Thailand,” said Suong Sopheap, a provincial coordinator at Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center.

Though the government last month announced a $49, 20-day system to get workers overseas legally with the help of recruitment agencies, the mechanism has yet to begin.

But with no way to get back to Thailand, returned migrants workers languish in Cambodia where available jobs don’t pay them enough to afford basic living costs.

“If I continue to work in Cambodia, I won’t have money to support my family or pay the bank, because I get a low income and have to pay for a rental house, water, electricity and food,” said Kim San, 35, who returned to Kampong Cham province.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour has maintained there are enough employment opportunities for all returnees. The National Employment Agency, however, has identified just over 40,000 jobs for 250,000 workers, and 80 per cent of those vacancies are in the manufacturing sector, where employers aren’t interested in hiring the mostly male returnees.

“Female workers are . . . easier to control”, in factory managers’ eyes, said Huy Pichsovann of the Community Legal Education Center. “The management has more power to violate the rights of the [female] workers.”

Many of the workers fill seasonal jobs on farms, or like San, find temporary construction work at half the wage they earned in Thailand.

“From my experience, it’s only a small number, 5-10 per cent that can find jobs in Cambodia,” said Sacha.

For now, most the workers are stuck waiting, or worse, burning money on brokers.

“If the workers could receive here the same amount we made in Thailand, I think no one would want or try to leave their hometown,” San said.

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