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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Confusing, chaotic and mired in red tape

Workers queue at the new fast-track documentation centres on the Thai-Cambodian border .
Workers queue at the new fast-track documentation centres on the Thai-Cambodian border . Vireak Mai

Confusing, chaotic and mired in red tape

Cambodian migrants have begun to trickle back to Thailand, but the process remains bureaucratic and fraught with hidden costs, dangers and conflicting information

It’s long, it’s complicated and it’s fraught with hidden costs. Registering migrants in Cambodia and Thailand has become a punishing process after a month of chaos. In June, about 225,000 Cambodian workers fled Thailand after the Thai junta launched a crackdown on illegal labour.

Since then new procedures have been put in place in both countries to help these workers return. Cambodia has promised a $4 passport system for migrant workers and scholarship students. Thailand has opened a number of fast-track centres on the border to register workers. Both have been hit by difficulties or delays.

“Thailand’s policy is not to clear [migrants] out. [We] want to avoid Cambodian labourers being cheated,” said Pakkarathorn Teainchai, Sa Kaeo provincial governor.

The majority of those who fled last month were illegal Cambodian migrants in the construction, fishing and agriculture sectors, especially in Chanthaburi, Trat, Rayong and Chon Buri provinces. Such labour benefits both countries – boosting production in Thailand and helping Cambodian workers send money home.

It was an ideal, if mainly illegal, relationship until rumours started to circulate of army round-ups of migrant workers, beatings and shootings by the Thai army and police. This in turn sparked an exodus. Most left of their own volition, however, paying their way on trains and buses, carrying as many of their belongings as they could.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Thailand’s ruling military body, claimed later there was a misunderstanding, that they only sought to register illegal Cambodian workers in order to protect them. Workers from Laos and Myanmar, the junta said, were left unaffected, which pointed to a possible political reason for the exodus.

Cambodian workers wait to have their passports processed at the new office in Prek Pra village in Meanchey district.
Cambodian workers wait to have their passports processed at the new office in Prek Pra village in Meanchey district. Hong Menea

Migrant expert and workers’ rights advocate Andy Hall is convinced that was the case. “Such rumours don’t start without a reason,” he said by telephone from Bangkok. “There was probably a political cause.”

Analysts believe it was related to the anti-junta red-shirt dissidents living in Cambodia, and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ties to Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It was also likely linked to the fact that Thailand was demoted by the US State Department to the lowest tier of its human trafficking list. Attempts to regulate the migrant work force has long been mired by corruption by police officials and politicians who profit from trafficking, exploitation and slavery.

The costs and paperwork for working legally in Thailand have long been prohibitive. “[Few labourers in Cambodia can afford] the passport fees of $130 to $300, coupled with broker and placement costs of up $700 to $800,” said Hall. This means they often have debts of $1,000 before earning a single cent – a form of indentured servitude.

Thailand has more than 2.2 million legal migrant workers, according to their Labour Ministry. There are 1.74m Myanmar nationals, 95,888 from Laos and 395,356 from Cambodia. There are also about one million illegal workers normally in the country, though this fluctuates according to demand and the political situation.

Attempts have been made in the past two weeks to control the fallout. Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng was photographed shaking hands with a Thai foreign ministry official after coming to an agreement on ending runmours of a crackdown.

For its part, the Cambodian government announced a new $4 passport process for migrants. Thailand began opening one-stop migrant centres to process illegal workers. Cambodia released imprisoned Thai “yellow-shirt” activist Veera Somkwamkid on Wednesday, and on Thursday Thailand released 14 Cambodian workers who had been arrested for having fake documents.

This has led to optimism that the détente will lead to improved conditions for migrant workers.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) voiced cautious optimism on new health care and workers’ compensation policies for migrants in Thailand.

“We will need to see how this is implemented both in terms of greater coverage and increased access in the coming months,” an IOM spokesperson wrote in an email.

Thailand has already opened several processing centres, with the most prominent in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon, 50km southwest of Bangkok. Other temporary coordination centres were set up on the border in Sa Kaeo, Trat, Surin and Chanthaburi provinces. These will close after the provinces set up one-stop service centres. A further 22 are being prepared in coastal provinces, according to NCPO chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and will open their doors on July 14.

The centre in Mahachai serves Myanmar, Laotian and Cambodian workers and is open from 8.30am to 4.30pm every day until July 30. The temporary centre registers more than 2,000 migrant workers a day, taking up to 30 minutes and costing 1,305 baht ($45) per applicant. Problems at the centres have included computer glitches, insufficient information in registration forms and the excessive numbers of foreign workers.

In the new processing centre in Mahachai, Hall said brokers are very active. “Even with the right documents the workers may still not be legal,” he said, “because their agents are registered as their employers.”

This also means that if workers want to leave an abusive job they must recover their passport, pay their debt and exit the country in order to re-register. Despite the recent changes, it may still be cheaper, easier and even safer to work illegally.

Despite the problems, agents have a role to play, according to Hall. They make it easier for employers to find workers, who need someone to process their paperwork. While many brokers are registered in Cambodia, this is not the case in Thailand, where the industry is unregulated and often unscrupulous.

“No passport should be confiscated,” Hall said, “and brokers should be registered. There are a lot of hidden costs for workers that should be eliminated.”

Those who pass medical checks at the processing centres are issued 60-day work permits, valid for two months. After that, they are issued a permanent one-year permit if key details are confirmed.

The IOM explained the process. “Obtaining a work permit is dependent on completion of a medical exam and enrolment in the health insurance scheme,” the spokesperson explained in an email. “The health examination is a general check-up costing 600 [baht], now reduced to 500 [baht].”

The new fast-track service centres may have the effect of making health coverage more accessible to migrants. “Fully regular migrant workers . . . are eligible for health care provision under the Social Security Fund and Workmen’s Compensation Fund.

Migrants . . . are required to enrol in the migrant health insurance scheme. The coverage is . . . now at a reduced price of 1,600 [baht] for one year,” the spokesperson said.

Cambodia was lauded for announcing a $4 passport scheme last month for migrant workers and students with foreign scholarships. The new programme, however, has yet to be implemented and applicants reported little change. One student, who asked not to be named, was told this week by the passport office that the total for the new passport would come to about $50 after it took effect. If she had a scholarship the paperwork needed to be approved and validated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. To get a passport now would cost her $120, she was told, and take 45 days to process.

In practice, most passports end up costing far more. One worker heading back to Thailand paid $300 last week, according to Hall. With only four passport offices in the country – in Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey – for farmers and labourers in rural villages the trip can be prohibitively expensive.

Chan Kimseng, Deputy of the General Directorate of Identification at the Ministry of Interior, said the cost would be reduced for everyone after a new passport system, including an electronic chip, takes effect on July 15. This would make foreign travel quicker and easier for everyone. But some non-government organisations are sceptical, pointing to previous promises of $20 passports for workers that were never put into practice.

If the current registration systems in the two countries leads to more humane treatment of migrant workers, then it is a positive development. Past experience, however, means unethical practices will quickly resurface as long as official corruption, police extortion and agent greed go unchecked.

The ASEAN Economic Community, set to launch late next year, will help the free flow of skilled workers in many sectors, although labourers will not be included. The best option for Cambodian workers remains for their country to have a more competitive labour market. This would provide enough jobs with salaries to live on.

With additional reporting by Vandy Muong

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