Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday had sharp words for neighbouring Thailand, criticising the junta-led country for abusing the rights of Cambodian workers in what he called the largest-ever repatriation effort seen by the Kingdom.
Speaking at an event in the capital attended by the Thai ambassador, the premier said it was “a violation” to return more than 250,000 migrant workers this month without prior notification, and appealed to the junta to release 13 Cambodians arrested for allegedly using fake visas.
“I would like to ask [coup leader] General Prayuth Chan-ocha to drop all charges against them,” he said, adding that the detained workers are innocent of any wrongdoing, but are themselves victims of a scam after they paid for legal visas only to receive fake documents instead.
“The workers cannot read Thai, so they didn’t know if the visa was fake or not,” he added, ahead of a meeting today between high-ranking officials from the two governments on the Thai side of the border.
The prime minister had, until yesterday, stayed quiet regarding the sudden, mass exodus of Cambodian workers from Thailand. He revealed, however, that he has been communicating with General Prayuth through letters, and was informed earlier this month that Thailand was enforcing migrant-worker policies to curb human trafficking, though there was “no intention to use force or to expel the migrants”.
The premier also tried to lend a positive note to the situation, calling it an opportunity to turn “illegal status” into more secure “legal work overseas”.
Last week, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training announced that it would provide workers and students with $4 passports, and also recently banned recruitment agencies from charging workers any commission fee. The new, yet-to-be-implemented, legalisation process will cost $49 and involve a two-and-a-half-month waiting period as all documents are procured.
“It’s a good measure in theory, but it’s not going to work,” said political analyst Kem Ley. “It doesn’t take into account indirect costs or opportunity costs, like to travel [to one of two passport offices in the country] and housing costs while the workers wait, during which they will be losing income by not working.”
Hun Sen said yesterday that he hopes to resolve such issues by opening a passport office in every province, though did not elaborate on how or when that could be accomplished.
The opposition denigrated the government’s efforts however, faulting the head of state for talking loudly but not talking more concrete steps to assist the workers, especially the 13 who could face trial in Thailand.
“By just announcing his position, he’s not actually doing anything,” opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said yesterday. “As the leader of the country, the prime minister is responsible for getting [the jailed workers] home.”
Chhay added that there are “many diplomatic channels available”, recalling that when Thailand has taken issue with Cambodia in the past, they closed the border.
Hun Sen showed no interest in retaliating however, and both countries have maintained they are cooperating over the bilateral issue. Senior officials from both governments are set to meet today for a press conference on the Thai side of the Poipet-Aranyaprathet border, and the prime minister said he expects an envoy from Thailand to visit Phnom Penh on July 1.
Addressing the workers yesterday, Hun Sen told them that they do not have to go abroad for jobs.
“Although wages here are lower than what you earn in Thailand, if you compare to fees you spend to get illegally to Thailand, it is not so much less,” he said, adding that “working in our country is safer”.
On Wednesday, the National Employment Agency put out a statement advertising 16,146 vacant jobs largely in the garment sector, aiming to prove the government could in fact employ the recently returned migrant workers.
“There are probably enough jobs if you include all the availability in the agriculture and construction sectors,” said Hong Choeun, director general of the agency.
Choeun also refuted yesterday the workers’ claims that they make too little in Cambodia to afford to live.
“Not all unskilled Cambodian workers go to Thailand, so they must earn enough,” he said. “Thailand was like a gold rush of people, because they heard they could make more money, but now the gold rush is over.”