Every day they come in the thousands and crowd under a blazing sun for hours, awaiting a moment that costs them more than two full months’ salary – a passport.
And where are they going?
“Thailand,” 21-year-old Sem Pheaktra said, squinting under a harsh mid-morning sun.
He, and five other young men recruited by the Khemara company were waiting in a thousand-strong crowd to have their photo taken at the new passport office on Phnom Penh’s Mao Tse Toung Boulevard.
“I am going to work in Thailand through [a recruiter],” the Kratie province native said. “I don’t need to pay for the passport, the company just cuts back my salary to pay for it.”
Cambodians pay about US$160 for a passport, more than double the average monthly garment factory salary of $61.
Sem Pheaktra expects to earn about $200 a month working at a factory in Thailand.
“Nowadays, I don’t have any work to do besides farming, and I cannot earn any money to help improve my family’s living standard,” he said.
Sem Pheaktra will wait up to three months to receive his passport and then will enter Thailand as a migrant worker, an opportunity he, and many others, view as golden.
The destination is the same for 23-year-old Khom Seiha, who was waiting with two fellow recruits from recruiter C.T.Asia Labour Co, Ltd, said.
“I will go to work in a factory in Thailand where I can work in electronics, constructions, seasoning product and canning food."
"I will earn about $300 a month, and that is higher than what I get from my factory, which is only $61 per month,” he said, adding that he is happy to get a higher salary and a new job, but that he was worried about moving to Thailand.
“I am worried about my safety, but if I stay here and am poorer, I will still be afraid,” Khom Sieha said. “To go to another country is the only way I can support my family.”
Nearby, 56-year-old Pen Vanny held similar fears for her son, who was waiting for his passport photo. Toun Eng was going to work in Thailand, but he couldn’t recall the name of the recruitment company that was sending him.
“I do not know what kind of job I will get, because the company officials did not tell me, but they asked me to get my passport first,” Toun Eng said.
His mother was agitated. “I cannot force him to stay here where he is only getting a low salary,” she said.
“But I am so afraid and worried about my son’s security in Thailand.”
And she has every reason to be, according to labour groups here.
Despite perceptions of a lack of opportunity in Cambodia and better rewards in Thailand, the reality migrant workers face across the border is not always ideal, Dave Welsh, country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said yesterday.
“Wages in Thailand, strictly speaking, will be better, but the cost of living is also much higher,” Welsh said.
“And the Cambodian government doesn’t do a good enough job to look out for workers – there is no labour attaché, and even if workers go to Thailand with a formal contract, it is a bit of a red herring,” he said. “There is no one there to monitor conditions.”
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labour project, pointed to the recent example of Phattana Seafood Company in Thailand where both documented and undocumented migrant workers from Cambodia were living under harsh and exploitative conditions.
“Wage promises were not implemented and workers were slaves,” Moeun Tola said. “It is so sad to see thousands and thousands of Cambodian people go long term to another country.
“I support the appeal from the prime minister for workers to stay in Cambodia. For low-skilled workers, there is abundant employment in Cambodia,” he added.
Chea Vuthy, communication officer for the Council for the Development of Cambodia, agreed.
“If you cannot find a job, come to the Ministry of Labour, there are many many jobs for Cambodians in Cambodia and we need them to stay to help the country,” Chea Vuthy said.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for Cambodians to take up opportunities in booming agriculture and construction industries in the Kingdom.
Welsh agreed that industries such as the construction and garment sector were crying out for more workers, but constant flouting of the law in contractual arrangements and a lack of marketing made these jobs unattractive or simply invisible to the majority of Cambodians.
Pich Vanna, deputy chief of Cambodia-Thai border relations, said that Cambodians crossing to Thailand for work had become a “habit” for poor Cambodians.
Chea Manith, director of the Poipet Transit Centre, said the numbers of Cambodians without documents being sent back from Thailand numbered 18,700 in April, an enormous jump from 8,700 in March.
At the month-old passport office in Phnom Penh, it seems the documentation is being tackled, but not the “habit”.
An official peered out across the mass of people obstructing the sidewalk down the block.
“There are 5,000 to 7,000 that come here every day,” he said. “That’s why the office moved. The old office was too narrow for everyone to line up.”