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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers adrift in limbo

Villagers adrift in limbo

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Pursat farmers spent eight months at sea

In the heart of Pursat province, at the end of a dusty, pot-holed road, lies the

tiny farming village of Roung. Encircled by rice fields and an hour away from the

nearest settlement, the villagers of Roung say they have a simple, traditional life.

22-year-old Sok Seng, left, and Eng Hou, 24, returned to Cambodia from Somalia on September 5.

It's hardly the place you'd expect to hear a dramatic tale of danger on the high

seas.

But on a recent morning, in the shade of a village chief's house, two young men told

the Post how a group of Roung villagers - none of whom had ever been on a sea-faring

ship before - spent nearly eight months at sea, on a journey that stretched from

Thailand to the Horn of Africa and back.

Complete with modern-day pirates, daring escapes and roiling seas, their voyage would

make even the wily Odysseus raise an eyebrow.

For four hours, Sok Seng, 22, and Eng Hou, 24, told of how they went to Thailand

with 30 other men between the ages of 19 and 37 with the promise of steady work,

good wages and the comfort of being close enough to visit their families.

Their homecoming has exposed a different story.

According to first-hand accounts and the human rights NGO Adhoc, many local residents

have been misled into working abroad, not paid for their time at sea, and may be

working off the coast of Somalia against their will.

"There are more than 50 Cambodian workers still in Somalia," said Ngeth

Theavy, of Adhoc's office in Pursat. "Seventy-one left and 18 returned. There

are 52 there now. The families of the workers in Somalia have asked for their family

members to come back."

The men said they were approached last year by Heng Chanthoun, Pursat representative

of the Sam Rainsy Party. Chanthoun told them he could provide them with legal work

in Thailand as an escape from unemployment in their rural province.

"Chanthoun said that his party helped poor people find a job. When I heard this

I was happy," Hou said.

The workers reported that Chanthoun organized a contract with a Thai company, Sirichai

Perfect Fishing Gear Ltd. The contract was signed by Roung's village chief, and Chanthoun

paid for several workers to travel to Phnom Penh to get passports and visas.

The group was taken from Pursat on January 26, under the supervision of a company

representative named Noi Sisovann. They arrived at the Poipet border at 2 pm and

reached the Thai port city of Mahachai at 10 pm, where they slept on the docks.

"We didn't have any mosquito nets. None of the 35 people could sleep. In the

morning we were taken to an office where we stayed for five days, ten [people] to

a room, until the ship was ready to depart," Sin said.

The villagers said they were told they could borrow money against their salaries

to send to their families. Along with this, every month their wages would be sent

home.

"All I knew was that I would get a job, work eight hours a day, and earn 6000

baht [$150] each month." Hou said.

"Before we left the port, the boss said that we could borrow 5000 baht to give

to our families. But Mr Noi said that we could only borrow 3000 baht each. My family

only got 2000 baht."

Hou reported that once on board, many of the crew changed their minds and wanted

to return home. When the ship docked in Singapore one Cambodian, Sang Sal, jumped

overboard and swam ashore in an effort to escape. He was promptly arrested by Singapore

police and returned to the ship.

"He jumped because he didn't want to go any more," Hou said. "He asked

to get sent back to Cambodia."

For the next 25 days, the Cambodian crew, together with a group of 30 Thai workers,

slept on the ship's deck under hand-built awnings. The ship passed ten countries

on its way to the coast of Somalia.

"We were given octopus to eat twice a day, every day. The sea was so large I

got sick. I walked and fell and nearly died," Hou said.

"When we arrived in Somalia the boss said, 'You owe me 30,000 baht each, for

your passport and transport.' We worked all day and night, taking a few minutes rest

for sleep. We hoped that if we worked fast, we could sleep for one hour."

Work was sorted into shifts. One of two fishing nets was cast up full of fish for

workers to sort, while the other was in the ocean. Once the work on one net was finished

the other net would be raised for them to work on, and so it went.

"When the net was torn we had to repair it," Hou said. "We had a boss

in the ship who oversaw everything. When the big waves came we did not stop working.

We were just washed from side to side on the ship."

"When I sleep, or take rest, the horn sounds," Seng said. "If I don't

wake up, the boss [would] hit me or throw water over me. I could not wake up, so

I had water thrown over me often, and was hit."

Somalia, on the northeastern coast of Africa, is a country that has been split by

factions and warlords since its last stable government was overthrown in 1991. Somalia

has not been able to function as a sovereign state for over a decade and its coastal

waters are a notorious haven for pirates.

Hou said that after the first month, a supply ship came to take the catch. When the

ships met, more than 30 Cambodians boarded the supply ship hoping to be taken home.

They were removed by soldiers who fired warning shots into the sky.

One day the crew witnessed one of their ships-boat 12-kidnapped by pirates in the

Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia.

"The boat was boarded by criminals," Hou said. "They took the boat

to another place and radioed the boss to demand money. The US military came, and

the robber was arrested."

The US military reported that the US 5th Fleet, along with the British Royal Navy,

intercepted two abducted fishing boats, one belonging to Sirichai, on March 17. Three

Somali nationals had demanded $800,000 as ransom. Four automatic weapons were seized

and the suspects detained. Reuters news agency reported on November 7 that Somali

waters were "out of control." Since March 28 ships in the area have been

attacked.

"Our boat had three soldiers. We heard that there were criminals who robbed

boats," Seng said. "Every day I was concerned for my life. Every minute

I was scared for 24 hours a day. I saw workers fall into the water often, before

they were saved by crew members."

After seven months of work the crew lost patience. Eighteen men demanded to be taken

back to Cambodia. The company relented and they were taken home.

"I went to the boss and said, 'Now I work for you enough to pay my money back.

I miss home. I want to go home,'" Hou said.

The crew returned through Poipet on September 5. They found that their families had

received nothing of their promised wages.

Phong Kheng, from nearby Phum Tamum village, also left Cambodia under contract on

January 26. Phong worked on a different boat but under similar conditions with six

other Cambodian workers. In early October he became ill at sea.

"Every four or five days, someone fell sick," Kheng said. "Most workers

were sick from the food.

"I was very worried when I got sick. While it was not serious I had to work.

When it got so bad that I could not do anything, they decided to take me to hospital."

Records show that Kheng was admitted to a hospital in Bosaso, northern Somalia, on

October 10 and given X-rays and medication for a liver condition.

After five days Kheng was discharged and taken back to Thailand by ship. He said

that upon his arrival on November 3, there was a car waiting to take him to the Cambodian

border.

He said he was given 5500 baht for medical expenses at Poipet, the only wages he

received for nine months' work. Another Cambodian who also fell ill received only

200 baht.

"I want the company to pay us back for the work which we are owed and I want

the workers in Somalia to come home," Hou said.

"I do not mind that they all lie, because in rural Cambodia, the promise of

work in Thailand is easy to believe. It is our mistake also, but I would like my

wages."

Once back in Cambodia the group contacted Chanthoun to ask for help claiming their

wages. After successive delays, on October 12 they took their claim to Adhoc.

"On October 12 I received a complaint from four representatives of 18 workers

asking for their wages during their time in Somalia," said Theavy. "The

other complaint was from the families of the workers who still stay in Somalia. The

workers told me that they had complained to the company but that they received no

response."

The case is currently under review.

Chanthoun confirmed that he had approached the workers as a representative of the

SRP, and had assisted workers in Pursat with jobs in Thailand. He also reported that

he had received complaints from members of the crew.

"Two or three of the crew said that the Thai people made them work hard and

cheated them," Chanthoun said. "They said the [Thai crew] forced them to

work hard, and hit them with a stick.

"But I found out from their company that they quit and broke the contract of

their employment.

"All or most of them work, those who don't work they send back, they still owe

the company money. They [the workers] just play a game."

Chanthoun said the Cambodian workers remaining in Somalia would return by the Khmer

New Year (mid-April 2006). He did not explain how he knew the return date, but said

he had been in contact with the boats.

In an effort to clarify matters, Chanthoun gave the Post photocopies of passports

given to him by the Cambodian workers. He maintains that the villagers had the legal

right to work in Thailand.

"If they didn't have a visa or passport to carry to Thailand, how can the immigration

police along the checkpoint allow them to get into their country?" he asked.

But when shown these documents, an official at the Thai Embassy visa office in Phnom

Penh said the workers held tourist visas, not valid visas for work in Thailand. The

official said, however, that if the Cambodians were working under a Thai company

in another country it would fall under that country's jurisdiction. Somalia does

not have the ability to inspect shipping in its territory.

On Thursday the Post called two ships in the Indian Ocean with numbers provided by

Chanthoun.

A Thai man answered the first call. He said there were no Cambodians on the ship

and that the ship was under German management. A further call to a separate boat

confirmed that there were 13 Cambodians on board and that the Post would be able

to speak with them after a five-minute interlude.

No further phone calls were answered by either boat.

Theo Kidess, Deputy Head of Mission for the German Embassy in Phnom Penh, said that

although Germany has a large fishing industry, he could not confirm that German ships

operate in the Indian Ocean, particularly off the coast of East Africa.

"We need to look into this. It doesn't look German to me," Kidess said.

Sok San, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, said that he was not aware

of the case. He said Cambodian companies must contact the ministry before taking

workers to another country.

"I would like the workers who came back from Somalia to file a complaint with

this ministry," San said. "Once we have details of this case it will be

easier for us to warn others that it is easy to be cheated like this."

Phum Tamum village chief Uch Phon said that eight workers in his village had signed

a contract with Heng Chanthoun.

"I told the workers that the contract had no specifics, if you go you will be

cheated; the contract is not clear, but they went anyway," he said.

Hou believes he is owed 42,000 baht for the time he was at sea. The villagers and

Adhoc said there are at least 52 Cambodians still working off the Somali coast.

"I would like to see Mr Heng stand in front of the law and talk with the people,"

Hou said.

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