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Thai rights for illegal workers

A bilateral registration program aimed at ensuring equal rights for the roughly 183,000

Cambodians working illegally in Thailand has resumed after a controversial nine-month

hiatus.

Now, for a 500 baht ($12.50) fee workers will be able to register to work legally

in Thailand for two years, and under full protection of Thai labor laws.

The registration program, which was slated to begin in March 2005, has been stymied

by "technical problems," a Ministry of Labor official said. So far only

77 illegal Cambodian workers have been registered.

Seng Sakda, general director at the Ministry of Labor, said his organization began

processing registrations on November 14 after receiving approval from the Thai Labor

Ministry on October 31. He said the program may take more than six months to complete.

The Cambodian government had arranged for a company to process the registrations

on November 1, but the arrangement was delayed by a Thai partner who wanted to announce

the companies and arrange the accommodation, Sakda said.

He explained that in the past Cambodians had either entered Thailand covertly or

were taken there by illegitimate labor bosses. They then worked in the country illegally

and without recognition from Thai authorities.

"Illegal workers live in fear of arrest by Thai authorities and get underpaid

by their employers," Sakda said.

Sok San, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, said that on October 31 the

Cambodian working group went to Bangkok to discuss resuming the registration of Cambodian

laborers in Thailand.

San said that previously there had been many problems for Cambodians who chose to

work in Thailand illegally. Most importantly, they were not recognized as citizens

by their employers and were not allowed legal representation when they had disputes.

Once Cambodian workers are registered in the new program, they will be working legally,

protected by Thai labor laws and ensured proper working conditions.

"It is a great benefit for our workers to have equal rights like Thai workers

and have the right to work in Thailand for two years," San said.

San said most Cambodian laborers work on farms, fishing boats and factories. They

are often underpaid and overworked. Illegal Cambodian labor forces have been documented

in all Thai provinces.

He said Thai workers received a minimum wage of about 7,000 baht ($170) a month,

but some Cambodian laborers got only 4,000 baht ($97) and most were cheated by their

Thai employers.

Songchai Chaipatiyut, First Secretary at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the

registration program was meant to be completed by the end of 2005. But, he added,

the process would take time.

"We try to legalize illegal workers in Thailand - who they are or what their

nationalities are - we verify them and they will have the same rights and the protection

as Thai workers," Chaipatiyut said.

He said the Thai government was using the same registration process with Myanmar

and Lao nationals to verify their nationalities and establish what they called a

"temporary passport" for workers. According to Chaipatiyut, the negotiations

between Thailand and Myanmar, which has the most illegal workers in Thailand, is

far behind the negotiations with Cambodia and Laos.

Pich Saran, Poipet immigration police chief, said about 4,000 to 5,000 Cambodians

cross the Poipet border each day. They enter Thailand in the morning and return in

the evening. Some work as laborers and others operate shops in Thai markets.

Saran said hundreds of people slip into Thailand to work illegally, but when they

are caught they are arrested by Thai soldiers. After a period of detention they are

usually returned to Cambodia.

A daily return worker and Poipet resident, Eath Savay, 20, works in a shoe factory

two kilometers inside the Thai border. He said that although he could find a job

in Cambodia, it was easier to find work in Thailand.

"I like my boss in Thailand," he said.

* (Additional reporting by Markus Bernsen)

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