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Cambodia’s Labour Ministry seeks pact with Lebanon on maids as more seek work abroad

Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng (centre) speaks with Lebanese Consul-General Rafic Yazbeck yesterday about sending Cambodian workers to Lebanon.
Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng (centre) speaks with Lebanese Consul-General Rafic Yazbeck yesterday about sending Cambodian workers to Lebanon. Hong Menea

Cambodia’s Labour Ministry seeks pact with Lebanon on maids as more seek work abroad

Cambodian workers may soon be headed to Lebanon, the latest country that the Ministry of Labour is targeting as a destination for thousands of underemployed Cambodians looking for work amid stagnant job opportunities at home.

In a meeting with outgoing Lebanese Consul-General Rafic Yazbeck yesterday, Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng said the two countries hope to speed up discussions about sending workers to the Middle Eastern country as part of a broader strategy to improve the job market for Cambodians.

“Anywhere we have the chance, we’ll expand more and let our people go there,” Samheng said.

The meeting comes amid a flurry of activity over the last two years, starting with a plan to send as many as 100,000 Cambodian workers to Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, the ministry has sent its first batch of maids to Hong Kong, lifted its six-year ban on sending migrant workers to Malaysia and announced plans to send more workers to Japan to support the elder care industry.

Sam Heng said yesterday that the ministry has also signed agreements to send workers to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it was not immediately clear whether they have taken effect.

The ministry’s strategy was met with mixed reviews by economists and labour rights activists, who raised questions about the economic benefits and risk of abuse in migrant work.

Nicholas Harrigan, a senior lecturer in sociology at Australia’s Macquarie University who studies migration, said it is “far from clear” whether pushing migrant work is a viable development strategy.

Migrant work can offer people the opportunity to temporarily escape rural poverty, but most of the benefits are extracted by middlemen, Harrigan said, such as governments and recruiters.

“In general, increases in migrant workers tend to provide benefits to a few powerful political actors,” Harrigan said in an email.

Destination countries, meanwhile, are also increasingly limiting the amount of time that migrant labourers stay, Harrigan noted. In Singapore, for example, the longest visa that a low-wage migrant worker can obtain is two years.

These trends mean that migrant labourers are increasingly treated like “rented property” instead of future citizens, according to Harrigan.

“[Governments] don’t need to worry about education, aged care, health care, or the next generation – and the migrant workers are basically disposable,” he said.

Chan Sophal, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, agreed that the government should direct its focus toward growing high-paying jobs in the domestic job market.

“It’s better for them to have employment in Cambodia,” Sophal said. “Then it’s a free choice for them.”

But Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour insisted that’s exactly what the ministry is trying to do.

“The net number of outward migrant workers is not changing,” Sour said in a message. “Even though there are more overseas labour markets, our local labour market is . . . increasing its attractiveness.”

Sour did not respond to questions as to how exactly the ministry would accomplish this.

Many of the jobs available in Lebanon will be in factories and as maids, according to Sam Heng, who said the ministry sent a working group to explore the market last year.

Lebanon uses the kafala system favoured by many Middle Eastern countries, and explicitly exempts domestic workers from the labour law. Under the kafala system, migrant labourers can only leave if their employers sign their exit visas.

Moeun Tola, of the labour rights group Central, said he harboured “deep concerns” about sending workers to Qatar and Lebanon, citing reports of serious abuses of migrant workers.

“To increase jobs for the people, the government should look at other safer opportunities or create more jobs and vocations inside the country,” Tola said.

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