Cross-border porters in Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet town over the weekend defended the decision last week to stage a demonstration over customs fees – a demonstration that turned violent and ultimately left four injured – saying that import tax and unofficial fees exacted by police are cutting into their livelihoods.
In interviews conducted at and around the busy Cambodia-Thailand border crossing, porters said that by the time all the fees – some more official than others – had been taken into account, porters sometimes earn no more than $1.25 per trip.
To pick up their shipments in Thailand, they said, porters must first pay an official entry fee of 10 baht or 1,200 riel (about $0.30) to enter the neighbouring country. On their return, Cambodian police stationed within the border zone exact a bribe of 2,000 to 3,000 riel. Upon reaching the Cambodian side, other police officers there demand another unofficial payment of 3,000 to 5,000 riel before the carts loaded with Thai goods even reach the customs checkpoint.
Porter Van Nge, 48, a retired soldier, said the small fees add up.
“Currently, cart-pullers like us seem to be the same as slaves to those customs officials and checkpoint officials,” he said. “Before reaching the customs checkpoint … we have to spend 5,000 riel to 10,000 riel on the border officials and we have to spend from 20,000 riel to 30,000 riel on tax, so on a trip, we only earn about 5,000 riel to 10,000 riel.”
Nge also wondered about the legitimacy of the tax rates being charged, which he said had been a factor in organising last week’s demonstration-turned-riot that saw workers pelt security personnel and the Poipet Customs and Excise Office with bricks.
The crackdown, he said, “caused us to lose our patience, so we just reacted”.
Mao Sun, who was badly beaten by military police last week and was just discharged from hospital on Friday, said that taxes on smaller shipments should be lowered.
“We can barely get enough food, so we set up the strike seeking to reduce the cost of tax for [shipments of less than] 30 cases of goods transported by cart per day,” Sun explained.
Thirty-five-year-old porter Seng Sovandy said he can only charge his clients 7 to 10 baht per case, but ends up paying between 5 and 7 baht per case in tax, not including unofficial fees. While customs officials don’t ask for payments for certain goods not subject to tax, they also refuse to show porters the official rates, Sovandy went on to say.
Enforcement at the checkpoint did seem to be spottily applied. Though customs officials could be seen spot-checking the contents of some shipments, others whose goods were hidden under plastic sheets passed through without a glance. When asked why some shipments were checked and others not, officials said, “We are very busy; it is not the time for questions.”
Nuon Vuthy, acting director of the Poipet Customs and Excise Office declined to comment on the matter, while Chhuon Hai, the office’s permanent director, could not be reached.
Provincial police official Suon Sotharoath said an investigation into last week’s riot will be completed in about 10 days.