Employment in South Korea remains a popular choice for Cambodian workers, most of whom work there for between four and five years. Earlier this month, however, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training announced 1,500 short-term five-month contracts. A total of 500 workers will depart in March, with an additional 1,000 leaving in August.

The announcement was welcomed by several Korean language students.

Morn Phirom, a 24-year-old man from Boeung Khnar commune’s Preah Mlu village of Pursat province’s Bakan district, said that after he graduated from high school in 2020, he wanted to pursue higher education. Unfortunately, his family were unable to afford the tuition fees. As he could not find employment in his home province, he became an illegal worker in Thailand.

He worked as a construction worker, but did not feel that he was learning any skills that would help him secure his future. His meagre salary meant he was working hand to mouth and he was barely getting by. Faced with an uncertain life in Thailand, he returned home. Now, he is thinks he may be able to find work in South Korea.

“I dream of being selected to go to South Korea, because the salaries are high and I will be able to send money home to my parents. In Thailand, I worked every day but was unable to save any money or support my family. I’m learning the Korean language in Pursat provincial town so I can take the test and find work in agriculture in South Korea,” he said.

Mean Sophors, a 23-year-old woman who lives in Taing Krasaing commune and village of Kampong Chhnang province’s Teuk Phos district, said she recently just graduated from high school. She wants to find work in South Korea so she can send money to her parents. To get that chance, she is learning Korean.

She added that she has been studying for a month and had just seen the ministry’s announcement. She hoped she would be chosen for the programme, and said it would help her language skills enormously.

“I have relatives working there who say the salaries are very high. Some of them earn more than $2,000 a month working in factories, but I think agriculture would suit my strengths,” she continued.

Duch Phektra manages a Korean language school which opened in Kampong Chhnang town in 2008. Many of the students are from the town itself, but the campus also has dormitories for students who come from rural areas. Over 200 students a year graduate from the school each year.

“We pride ourselves on the quality of the education we provide, and the students appreciate it. Our teachers are all Cambodian nationals, but they are very experienced, and most of our graduates pass the language examination,” he added.

Hong Davuth, deputy principal of Uddompheap School in Kilometre VI in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, said that prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 500 students attended Korean language classes each day. The numbers declined dramatically when classes were forced to go online.

He added that now that the Kingdom has reopened – and with the labour ministry’s announcement of new contracts – the number of students was climbing again.

“We have more men signing up for lessons because they have more options in South Korea – they can work in industry, construction, agriculture and the service industry. Women are not eligible for construction jobs,” he continued.

In a January 16 press release, the labour ministry announced the 1,500 new contracts, which are for agriculture and animal husbandry positions.

It said the workers will be employed to plant tomatoes, chillies, apples, grapes and pears, and manage cows, pigs and chickens.

The programme is being run under South Korea’s Foreign Seasonal Workers Programme, which complements the Employment Permit System (EPS).

“Seasonal workers can be employed for five months at a time. When they return to the Kingdom, they will be given priority for new job openings in different cities or districts. One worker may work up to 10 months in a year, with priority given to those who speak the Korean language and have passed the EPS-TOPIK Korean Language Proficiency Test,” said the ministry.

Cambodian ambassador to South Korea Chring Botumrangsay said that as of December 2022, 49,738 Cambodians were living and working in South Korea, 11,839 of them women.

“The labour market in South Korea is an excellent one for Cambodian migrant workers,” she added.

“They will benefit and contribute to the national economy and improve the livelihoods of their family members. While they are working, they will acquire knowledge and experience in the industrial, agricultural and construction sectors of Korea, which utilise advanced technology,” she concluded.