Cambodia made a rare show of defending its migrant workforce in South Korea on Friday, calling attention to a labour scheme that has come under fire for perpetuating exploitation and abuse.
During meetings with the outgoing South Korean ambassador, president of the National Assembly Heng Samrin requested the country “provide better working conditions for the Cambodian[s]”, according to state media.
Samrin also asked South Korea to expand the quota of Cambodians allotted work visas.
Last year, Cambodia sent an estimated 8,800 workers to fulfil mainly unskilled, manual labour positions in South Korea’s fields and factories, though thousands more applied.
The monthly wages the migrants can earn in South Korea can be 10 times what they would see in Cambodia. But in exchange for the boost, many face violent or threatening employers, excessive working hours, no paid leave and squalid living conditions, an Amnesty International report released earlier this year found.
Long perceived as an anomaly among countries notorious for migrant worker scandals, South Korea’s work permit system is not free of abuses, rights workers say, but instead manages to more effectively suppress complaints.
In addition to being penalised for changing employers, the Cambodian migrants can also find themselves confronted with an embassy that is rarely willing or able to defend them.
“I haven’t heard of any cases where the Cambodian Embassy has been able to solve a worker’s problem,” said Kim Yi-Chang, director of Earthian’s Station, which is currently providing shelter to between 50 and 70 Cambodian workers who have nowhere else to turn.
Hong Ky, a Kampong Thom native who works for a South Korean factory, said when he got sick, his employer refused him time off and would not pay for his hospital stay.
“The embassy told me that working abroad always comes with problems, but that my problem is small,” he said.
Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea and Chheang Vun, spokesman for the National Assembly, declined to comment yesterday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID