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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nowhere to cast their vote

Ngem Chheng, 33, awaits in Poipet, Banteay Meanchey province
Ngem Chheng, 33, awaits in Poipet, Banteay Meanchey province, last Wednesday for transport across the border to work as a construction worker for Thai company TBY Construction. The Takeo province native does not intend to return to the Kingdom to vote in next month’s national election. HENG CHIVOAN

Nowhere to cast their vote

Scores of migrant workers, nervousness showing on their faces, sat in parkland outside a Poipet casino last week waiting for their moment to cross through a border checkpoint into Thailand’s promised greener pastures.

The migrant workers’ departure for jobs at factories, construction sites and kitchens means they will miss the month-long National Election campaign, which began sweeping the country on Thursday.

It also mSome 300,000 Cambodians are known to be working legally in Thailand – while an untold number toil there as illegal immigrants. That figure amounts to more than three per cent of the voter population. But most won’t cast a ballot come July 28 because they physically won’t be able to, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC).
eans they will likely miss their chance to vote.

“I want to come back for the election,” said construction worker Lim Ankea Vuth, 38, who added that he would “vote for a new government” if he got the chance. “But how can I come back? I have a contract that allows me to return home only after 10 months.”

“Because many migrant workers’ passports and travel documents are withheld by their employer, it’s very hard for them to come back and vote,” he said. “And we don’t have any polling stations in embassies and consulates in other countries.”

Ankea Vuth, a construction worker from Battambang province, told the Post he had paid a recruitment company $280 for transport to his workplace and a new passport – which he must hand over to his boss on arrival in Thailand.

His story is far from unique. Near to where he sat, Salai Man, an employee of recruitment firm Human Resources Development Company, said 25 Cambodians he was sending to work in electronics and spare parts factories in Thailand would also not return for the election.

“According to the contract these workers signed, they will not be allowed to come back home until they’ve worked for 10 months,” he said.

The recruitment firm would allow them home sooner, Man added, only if the Cambodian and Thai governments ordered employers to grant workers leave to vote. “Then my company will follow government orders,” he said.

A young woman, who identified herself only as Thoeun from Svay Rieng province, said debt had urged her to look west for a more lucrative opportunity – and the chance to vote was something she was willing to sacrifice in return.

“I want to vote, but there’s no way I can come back because I need to work to make money,” she said, adding that she would be sewing rice bags in a Bangkok factory.

“I have personal loans with high-interest repayments. I need money to pay back the loans, otherwise I will have to take out more loans. For me right now making a salary is my priority, not voting.”

But making money and having the opportunity to vote shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, CLEC’s Tola said.

The government has not shown a willingness to enter into diplomatic dialogue with destination countries about setting up polling stations for workers such as Thoeun.

“[Migrants] have the right to vote for their leaders. Polling booths should be set up near where they work,” Tola said.

Puthea Hang, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, agreed. “The NEC, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should prepare voting boxes in embassies and consulates in countries where Cambodians are employed to give them a chance to vote if they want to,” he said.

Hang added that, in reality, migrant workers had no chance to return to vote because their employers would not grant them leave and “even if they did, it is unlikely workers could afford the transport back”.

People stand in a queue at the Poipet Cambodian-Thai international checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey province
People stand in a queue at the Poipet Cambodian-Thai international checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey province. HENG CHIVOAN

Migrant workers returning home also raised a broader issue about the legalities – and practicalities – of voting, Tola said.

“This is a poor country, but [by law] we still require people to go back to their home village to vote – it costs a lot of money,” he said. “The National Assembly needs to consider this and make amendments to the law.”

Cambodian migrant workers sent home $256 million in 2012, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) recently released Sending Money Home to Asia report, a figure that underscores their importance to the Kingdom’s economy.

“Their contribution is not just money,” said Koul Panha, executive director of monitoring group the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

Giving them the opportunity to vote would be healthy to an inclusive democracy, he said.

“I cannot make specific recommendations, but many countries use embassies.”

A second group of migrant workers – those who lived in Banteay Meanchey but worked in Thailand – should be allowed to vote in Banteay Meanchey, not just the province from which they were born, Panha added.

Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said a decision about workers returning home needed to be made within the terms of individual contracts “signed between workers and their employers” and not the
government.

“But we strongly believe that such recruitment companies [in Cambodia] will understand and delay their programs until after voting,” he said.

The National Election Committee, for its part, said their hands were tied.

“There is no article in Cambodia’s election law that talks about voting outside the country, so the NEC has no power to open stations in another country,” secretary-general Tep Nytha said.

“I have never received an official letter from the opposition demanding changes to the law.”

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the government had the responsibility to provide migrant workers with the opportunity to cast a ballot, no matter where they were.

“The government must create a polling station in the countries that have Cambodian embassies or consulates to allow these workers to vote,” he said. “But right now this government suspects that all migrant workers will probably not support the ruling party,” he said.

Tola from CLEC believed that most Cambodians working and living abroad, including in South Korea and the US, would likely vote for the opposition.

This was because push factors to Thailand included land grabbing and poor finances, while experiences in other countries gave many a broader perspective on how Cambodia was governed, he said.

“They see development [in other countries] and the potential of Cambodia to develop faster,” he said. “If they allow Cambodians to vote in consulates or embassies, I believe they would not vote for the CPP.”

But given the opportunity, some migrant workers wouldn’t vote at all.

Waiting near the border checkpoint, a nervous and excited Ngem Chheng, 33, from Takeo province, said he had more pressing things to worry about than choosing leaders.

“I don’t care about voting anyway,” he said. “Even if I vote, nothing in Cambodia will change . . . my family and community will still be poor.

“This is my first chance at working in Thailand. My family is poor and I’ll use the income to support them.”

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