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Cambodian migrants faring ‘worst in region’

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Cambodian migrant workers wait at Poipet’s immigration office in July, after trucks full of workers were deported by Thai authorities back to the Kingdom. Maryann Bylander

Cambodian migrants faring ‘worst in region’

Out of four Southeast Asian countries, migrant workers from Cambodia have the worst experiences, with eight in 10 experiencing labour rights abuses while abroad and more than two-thirds reporting mental or physical health problems upon return, according to a study released by ILO and IOM today.

The study compared migrants from Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, finding workers from Cambodia are more likely to experience abuses and have health problems. An estimated 1.5 million Cambodians are currently working abroad, and Cambodian officials have publicly stated their intention to send even more.

Report author Ben Harkins said it is “difficult to say” whether migration helps or hurts the average Cambodian worker. Despite some long-term benefits – including slight increases in monthly income after returning – “there’s also a lot of problems”, he said.

Harkins said Cambodian migrants are particularly vulnerable to labour rights abuses and stayed the shortest length of time in their destination countries. In addition, Cambodian workers struggle to find employment upon return.

“There’s still a gap,” Harkins said. “Even if they do obtain these kinds of improvements in skills, they can’t always apply them when they come back to Cambodia.”

Two-thirds also reported social, psychological or health issues upon return – with the largest complaints being boredom, anxiety and depression. While those may seem like quibbles, the results show that migrants need help readjusting to their communities and finding work, Harkins said.

Srorn Langda, project manager for human trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said he was unsurprised by the results. The vast majority of Cambodian workers migrate through unofficial channels, often without a contract, which puts them at risk, he said.

But even those with contracts sometimes end up with employers who break their promises, Langda added. “They don’t give their salary to them, they use them, they exploit their labour,” Langda said.

Still, he hesitated to say 
that migration is overall a negative experience for Cambodian workers.

“When they are staying in the countryside, they have nothing to do, they are jobless,” he said. “Migrants can improve their living situation.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech to garment workers on Wednesday that he hopes 
to increase the number of migrants working overseas, despite years of reports of widespread abuses. Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached yesterday.

Researchers spent one and 
a half years producing the report, which involved surveying more than 1,800 returned migrant workers, including nearly 500 from Cambodia.

Harkins pointed out that not all the results were negative. Almost half of Cambodian migrant workers brought back new skills from their time abroad and more than nine out of 10 female workers reported that their experience abroad was empowering, he said.

Upon return, migrant workers from Cambodia were also able to slightly increase their monthly income by $11, according to the report.

To improve experiences for migrant workers, ILO and IOM recommend that destination countries beef up their labour rights protections and that origin countries improve job opportunities for returned migrants.

Harkins also called upon Cambodian authorities to be stricter in pursuing labour rights violations, particularly those committed by recruitment agencies.

“The benefits of migration have not been maximised for Cambodian migrants, but we also acknowledge that there is the possibility for migrants to have positive outcomes,” he said.

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