The Ministry of Labor on Tuesday announced that the number of workers leaving Cambodia for jobs abroad dropped by more than a third in 2013 compared to the year before, but experts warned yesterday that the ministry’s figures did not represent the broader emigration picture.
While the ministry’s data shows that the total number of Cambodian migrant workers abroad in 2013 was 22,300 – down 36 per cent from 34,804 in 2012 – the figures leave out the vast number of illegal Cambodian immigrants who have sought work abroad, estimated in 2012 to number 160,000 in Thailand alone.
Hou Vuthy, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Labor, said that though illegal emigration still occurs, other factors are also at play.
“As I have asked and examined from border officials, Cambodian workers still illegally cross to work in bordering countries,” he said.
But, he added, it is also likely that the dip in legal emigration figures could be attributed to workers simply finding better jobs at home last year.
The roughly 8,800 workers in South Korea represented a slight rise over 2012, but it was the massive decline in legal workers in Thailand – down to 13,168 in 2013, compared to more than 26,300 in 2012 – that accounts for 2013’s entire drop in legal workers abroad.
Last year’s decline coincided with new Thai regulations that require Cambodian migrants seeking to work there to complete an official registration process or face deportation.
At the time, critics argued that the proposition was expensive – even with Thailand’s attractive 9,000-baht ($274) monthly minimum wage – and corrupt, and would ultimately have the effect of forcing immigration underground, a prediction that appears to have been borne out, according to labour migration expert Andy Hall.
“The legal entry channels . . . are out of control, completely unregulated, expensive, not transparent and slow. Workers are at risk of falling into situations of debt bondage and even being trafficked through [these] formal channels,” he said yesterday, via email.
“I doubt there has been any decrease in actual number of workers from Cambodia to Thailand, but just [a] decrease in using formal channels . . . Of course the informal channels are also as risky, if not more so, than the formal channels because of deceptive brokers, trafficking,” he added.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, also maintained that legal emigration had simply been supplanted by illegal emigration “because they think that it’s easier to avoid the documents and spend less”.
Pich Vanna, director of the Cambodian-Thai border relations office, said that Cambodians seeking to illegally emigrate often take up residence along the border until the time is right to cross.
“That’s why it’s difficult to arrest them or stop them, [and] why most Cambodian workers work there illegally,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE