Dr Laurie Parsons and Dr Sabina Lawreniuk have undertaken extensive studies on Cambodia’s migrant movements for the past eight years.
Currently doing academic research, as well as consultancy work for NGOs, focusing on urban livelihoods, labour rights, and working conditions, the pair met with Post Property to provide some insight on the complexities of domestic migration and how this has impacted the Kingdom’s dynamics of housing, households and communities.
Can you shed some light on your past studies on domestic migration?
Sabina and I have been involved in researching migration patterns in Cambodia since 2008, working on a two-year project for the Royal University of Phnom Penh, funded by the International Development Research Centre. That particular project was based in the Teuk Thla migrant enclave, along the Russian Federation Boulevard, which was home to several thousand migrants who worked predominantly in a cluster of garment factories in the area’s economy.
We’ve been involved in over a dozen more studies of internal migration since, as it is a hugely important issue in Cambodia.
In recent years, the volume of people moving has skyrocketed and every aspect of the country has felt the influence of this mobility.
Has anything significant changed from the study you did, and how would you describe the situation now?
After that study finished in early 2011, we did a follow-up of the same enclave in 2014, and the whole picture of the area was different. Whereas from 2008 to 2011 migrant behavior was fairly homogeneous and very distinct from the life of the city as a whole, by 2014 everything had changed. A combination of changing factory-working practices and a small number of wealthier migrants “bedding in” to the areas they had migrated to years before had created a new type of migrant environment.
As factories offered only short-term contracts to workers, their migration patterns had changed to reflect this. Migrants were now coming and going far more frequently, staying 25 per cent less time in Phnom Penh on average, with many coming and going every few months. At the same time, the more established migrants had opened migrant-targeted businesses like cafes, restaurants, bars, and even a club, so the whole character of the area had shifted to one more focused on consumption than savings. It had gone from somewhere where migrants came to save money for four or five years in order to invest, to a place full of amenities aimed directly at them.
This meant that the area was polarized by differences in rural wealth. Those whose families needed their remittances really desperately were almost imprisoned by rising prices and the insecurity of their jobs, not daring to leave their rooms or spend anything but the bare minimum on themselves.
Where do these temporary migrants stay when they move to urbanised areas?
Most migrant workers live in blocks of rented rooms near to their factory or place of work, sharing with a number of other people to help keep down the rent, which had risen 175 per cent between the two studies of Teuk Thla we did.
Those who are able to do so often avoid rented rooms altogether as a result of these high costs. Construction workers, for instance, tend to live on site where possible, setting up bedding and amenities through generators in half-completed buildings, while some even bring their families to stay with them onsite.
Beyond salaried migrants there is even more variety. Most beggars are circular migrants, alternating between their rural homes and the city during times of year when they run out of rice. A whole micro-economy caters for people like this, offering accommodation to beggars and other very low-earning migrants at around 1,500 riel per night for a space on the floor of a large room with numerous others.
Most of these blocks are now towards the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where most factories are located.
Could you highlight some of the major concerns that you see with temporary migration?
Migration on such a huge scale has certainly changed the city’s economy and land usage.
One of the reasons that Phnom Penh’s property market has boomed quite as much as it has is because land and property are being driven up from the centre and the peripheries concurrently. There are huge development projects going on in the centre, and then on the outskirts the garment industry and its workers need workplaces and accommodation.
The big winners are the people who owned land before the factories came – often rural farmland at the time – and who were able to build rented rooms on their plots. These are simple to build, have increased hugely in value, and bring in very high rental yields, so a lot of people who were farmers in the early 1990s became quite wealthy that way.
After the study was concluded, were there suggested solutions for any of the problems?
In terms of migrant workers themselves – who have suffered from rapidly rising rents in recent years – there have been some recent efforts to implement controls, including a law passed by the National Assembly last year. Whether these are effective or not remains to be seen, but it seems like a step in the right direction.
At present, landlords in migrant areas raise rents as soon as a rise in the minimum wage for garment workers is announced, so after all the hard negotiations by unions and grassroots campaigners, much of the gain disappears instantly into landlords’ pockets.
Part of the problem is the increasingly transitory nature of migrant work. Landlords aren’t interested in retaining a tenant for a long time. They say “if a room empties, it’s no problem; it will be filled again within a week”. This kind of attitude has led to many landlords also hugely overcharging for electricity and water, adding on a flat fee of around $10 per month for these services. Companies and landlords have been known to install electricity meters that purposefully overestimate the amount of electricity used.
With Cambodia’s agriculture sector falling on hard times, do you foresee these provincial people actually permanently settling in bigger cities?
In fact, the opposite. Some people settle long-term, but it’s a small minority of people who either came years ago and were able to save, or borrow money from their richer family members, to open a business. The more prevalent trend is of people moving between the country and the city in faster and faster cycles, as the two become increasingly interlinked.
Smallholder agriculture is in a very poor state at the moment, as climate pressures ratchet up the risk faced by farmers and reduce average yields, but economic changes are equally important. As more and more people have migrated in search of work, rural wages have tripled due to the reduced supply. This is why most migrants return to work on their family farms where possible; their parents or family can’t afford to hire anybody to replace them.
So it’s all becoming a single system. The idea of rural and urban doesn’t really apply anymore here. Households are economically and physically spread across the two and everybody’s involved.
Do you think the government’s lack of interest in building public housing is due to the perception that this migrant movement is too ephemeral to actually build permanent low-cost or affordable housing?
I don’t think that the migration patterns underway in Cambodia are particularly well-understood by the government. Policy makers in general tend to have a very simplistic, usually negative, and overbearingly economic view on migration, so migrants invariably end up under-represented and poorly catered-for in their destination.
The high and rising cost of living in Phnom Penh means that workers aren’t able to absorb any loss of wages. If a factory lays them off without notice – as is becoming more normal in the garment industry – they have little choice but to go straight home rather than try to find another job, as they cannot risk not getting one or wait for the first month’s paycheck.
This creates huge problems for workers and their families, who depend on them sending money home. So, low-cost and affordable housing for migrant workers would bring enormous benefits not only to workers themselves, but also their rural villages, who would pick up most of the gains from lower rent in the form of remittances.
Anything like this that helps to make workers’ livelihoods less precarious also helps them to invest in both the country and the city, which brings wider benefits.
Ultimately, in Phnom Penh, anything that makes migrant workers better off tends to benefit a great many other people too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.