Seventy-five Cambodian migrant workers, their paperwork in order, believed they were en route to high-paying construction jobs in Thailand. Instead, the group of workers and six children were carted to an island 12 hours south of Bangkok and abandoned, given no money, food or jobs.
Ten days into being stranded, the desperate Cambodians sought the help of the villagers on Koh Mook to get off the island before they starved. Thai marine police staged a rescue on Sunday and brought the workers back to shore, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed yesterday.
“We are trying to help them [get back to Cambodia], but whatever happens will depend on the laws in Thailand,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.
According to Thai media reports, the abandoned workers had all sought employment through the proper legal channels, registering in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province at one of the newly opened “one-stop service centres”. But the catastrophe they encountered reveals continued shortcomings in the system, according to rights monitors.
“What’s clear from this episode is Thailand’s so-called ‘new’ registration system has a long way to go,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Time and time again, one sees the same dodgy recruitment schemes with false promises, seized passports and workers’ papers, and a lack of labour protections that leave workers with little or nothing.”
Thailand’s ruling junta launched the temporary registration system for foreign workers in early June after more than 225,000 mostly undocumented Cambodian workers fled the country following the May 22 coup. The centres have so far registered and handed out work permits and temporary residency cards to over 440,000 workers.
Despite the good intentions behind the registration system, it may actually be making brokers and traffickers’ jobs easier. Any Thai person, regardless of whether they own or operate a business, can sponsor migrant workers as long as they have submitted a list of workers’ names, according to Bangkok-based migration expert Andy Hall.
Thailand’s registration centres are also out of sync with Cambodian guidelines.
“There is no agreement between the Cambodian government and Thai government on the process and fee[s] for foreign worker registration,” said Camille Dumont, communication specialist for Winrock International Counter Trafficking in Persons.
Last month, Cambodia issued a prakas on a $49 legal route back to employment in Thailand, but “at the moment, it is not an available option for migrants”, Dumont said.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s system isn’t offering any better solutions.
“There have been a lot of announcements from both sides, but still nothing is clear and problems remain,” said Moeun Tola, labour head at legal aid NGO CLEC.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG