One of Cambodia’s two associations of recruitment agencies pledged to promote “ethical recruitment” on Thursday in an effort to cut back on the abuse and exploitation faced by Cambodian migrant workers.

The Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA) signed a memorandum of understanding with the NGO Legal Support for Children and Women cementing the collaboration, which will focus on improving predeparture training and encouraging workers to travel through legal channels.

“If they go abroad through a legal company, they don’t have problems,” ACRA head and Oknha Ung Seang Rithy said.

“But our workers do things impulsively. They think today, and they leave for abroad tomorrow. And without thinking twice, they migrate illegally and face problems, like being cheated by brokers, or going to work without a work visa or without their forms.”

The project, which is focused primarily on migrants in Thailand, is funded by USAID and implemented by the NGO Winrock International.

Cambodian migrant workers remain at high risk for abuse and exploitation, with a study by the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration last year finding that eight in 10 migrant workers from Cambodia experienced labour rights abuses.

Despite this, the government has ramped up efforts to send Cambodian workers abroad over the past two years, with new batches of workers dispatched to Hong Kong and Malaysia and plans to send more to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

In a speech kicking off the two-day “ethical recruiting” workshop, Ministry of Labour Undersecretary of State Hou Vudthy acknowledged the risks but said the government “cannot ensure the safety of migrant workers single-handedly”.

“The government needs support from private sectors and relevant stakeholders,” Vudthy said. “So, the private sector has to strengthen their work.”

Dy The Hoya, of labour rights group Central, agreed predeparture trainings need improvement but called on the government to focus on strengthening its follow-up with workers and its punishment of unethical recruitment agencies or employers.

“I don’t think it can discourage abuse by just only providing predeparture training,” he said. “They have to develop an effective protection system for workers, and also implementation must be effective.”

Researchers have also found that efforts to get migrant workers to go through legal channels have been impeded by cost. The Hoya estimated the recruitment process to get a legal job in Thailand runs between $600 and $800.

In a report released on Tuesday, the ministry counted just 96,000 Cambodian migrant workers who went through private recruitment agencies in 2017.

Cambodia migrant workers are not alone in facing risk of abuse and exploitation. On Wednesday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced that Cambodia will host a meeting with representatives from Laos and Myanmar on March 29 and 30 to discuss challenges facing migrant workers, particularly in Thailand.

Additional reporting by Niem Chheng