The Centre of Alliance for Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) urged national governments to help provide legitimacy and social protections for migrant workers in both the countries where they work and their countries of origin.

The calls came at an event the organisation, in cooperation with local authorities, held last week to mark the 23rd International Migrant Workers’ Day.

CENTRAL programme officer Dy Hoya said that the celebration of Migrant Workers’ Day was organised in nine locations by volunteers in Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces, with more than 1,000 attendees, including former migrant workers, students, monks, local authorities and those who intended to migrate in the future.

The day was celebrated online and there were gatherings and parades on the main roads and sidewalks in the four provinces, according to Dy Hoya.

He said the celebration will send an important message to the government on importance of cooperating with target countries to provide legitimacy to Cambodian workers who are working and have been disenfranchised or those who do not have legal documents.

He said legitimacy provisions would enable workers to enjoy full protection of their rights and interests, and equal access to social and legal protections. It would also increase remittances and reduce labour exploitation in the workplace.

Dy Hoya added that the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training should work more closely with stakeholders such as local authorities, recruitment agencies, civil society organisations, unions and associations to increase awareness of migration safety to local people and strengthen the effectiveness of pre-departure orientation sessions so that migrant workers are aware of their rights and benefits.

“There are two major factors that lead to migration: motivation and traction. The motivating factors are poverty, unemployment, low wages, a lack of land for farming, agricultural products that cannot find markets and debt. Traction factors are that higher wages and job opportunities in the target country are better than in the home country and include their relatives working there as well,” he said.

He added that although migration is an individual right and choice, studies have found that most people migrate because of compelling circumstances that motivate them to move abroad, often at considerable risk.

Labour ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment on December 18.

In 2022, CENTRAL recorded 2,121 Cambodians who were detained by Thai authorities in 92 cases of cross-border work without legal documents. More than 40 per cent of them were women and children.

The formal migration process under the MoU system has a number of challenges that make it difficult for workers, including long wait times, complicated procedures and often high and indeterminate costs.

Through the same study and feedback from the Migrant Safety Advisor (MSA) organisation, who directly interviewed former workers, it was confirmed that an average worker pays between $300 and $650, with a wait time of between one and six months, said Dy Hoya.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Cambodia also held a Phnom Penh event to mark International Migrants Day last week. The event aimed to improve understanding of migration among the general public and celebrate migrants ’tremendous contributions to society.

An IOM press statement said the event featured a photography exhibition and a video presentation. The video, titled What is Migration?, featured interviews with Cambodian migrants who had returned from abroad sharing their experiences and perspectives. The event was attended by nearly 200 participants from government institutions.

According to the IOM, migrants make considerable contributions to societies, including in public health, as they represent a considerable part of the workforce in healthcare. They are also well represented in the cleaning, personal care, transport, food production, and research sectors.

“Yet, many migrants face obstacles in accessing essential health services due to irregular immigration status, language barriers, discrimination, a lack of migrant-inclusive health policies and high medical costs. The recent pandemic has shown that when migrants are left out of public health services, including through immunisation and primary care, everyone is at risk,” the statement said.

Kristin Parco, IOM Cambodia chief of mission, said it was fundamental to recognize not only the risks and needs of migrants of all genders but also their value and contributions as active agents of change, social progress, and resilience.

“Migrant rights are human rights. They must be respected without discrimination and irrespective of whether their movement is forced, voluntary, or formally authorised. Today and every day, let us stand up for migrants, their rights and dignity,” she added.