VIETNAMESE workers fill many Phnom Penh construction sites. Company managers point
to their high work ethic, their education and experience, as why they make good workers.
Mr Xuan (not his real name) agrees, but also cites another reason why Vietnamese
employees are attractive - their vulnerability to exploitation.
Xuan, in his 30s, articulate and well-dressed, has been working as a supervisor of
Vietnamese workers on construction sites. Like many others, he left Vietnam - and,
for him, a respected position in the civil service - to try to earn more money in
"I was lucky to have few problems at the border," he says of when he came
to Cambodia in 1990. "I convinced the guards to let me through, I didn't pay
Other Vietnamese, he says, pay $4 to $20 to cross the border, or more - "sometimes
they take all your belongings before they let you in".
To Phnom Penh there are many official checkpoints where more money is demanded. "We
are more afraid of the military police than the immigration officials because they
are more brutal and often beat us for no reason," says Xuan.
Once in Phnom Penh, he used his savings to open a small shop, but it didn't prosper
and he soon closed his doors. Many of his customers were Vietnamese workers, so he
asked them where he could get a job as a construction worker. "After my supervisors
saw that I worked hard and could be trusted," Xuan says, "they promoted
me to supervise other Vietnamese workers. My pay was 8,000 riel a day." The
average unskilled worker is paid 5,000 riel a day, he says, while a skilled worker
gets double that.
"Cambodian and Vietnamese workers get promised the same amount of money for
the same type of job, but the result is different," he says.
"Twenty percent of the time, the Vietnamese worker gets paid the full amount.
But it is more common that the boss pretends he gets upset and calls in the authorities
who beat us.
"Or, the boss pays us only a certain fraction of what he had promised us. He
may pay us 10,000 riel for ten days instead of 50,000 riel as he promised. We go
back to the boss, begging him for a little bit more money. Every day we go back,
spending money on transportation and wasting our day, and the boss sometimes pays
us bit by bit.
"Vietnamese workers are usually given harder work than Cambodians. In the Cambodiana
Hotel, we had to climb three floors carrying heavy loads on our backs.
"Vietnamese and Cambodian workers are kept separate on the work-site. This is
because of the language difference... Another reason is that Vietnamese work harder
than Cambodians, and the boss is afraid that we will become lazy if we see how the
Cambodian works. Also, there is a lot of fighting between Cambodians and Vietnamese.
"Many Vietnamese have difficulty finding jobs. Some use their bicycles, if they
have one, to go to work-sites every day to ask if they need a worker. I have joined
together with other workers, as subcontractors. I can get 100 workers together in
several days. To get a job, we must pay the boss 10-20 percent of our pay.
"The Cambodian military always harasses us. It is not just at construction sites,
but at our homes, by the Mekong bridge. They beat and rob us for the fun of it."
Despite all this, Xuan does not regret leaving Vietnam. "As long as the current
government is still there, I would rather suffer in Cambodia. It is still easier
to find a job in Cambodia than in Vietnam. A person without connections cannot get
anywhere in Vietnam... Despite all the propaganda in the media that Vietnam is changing,
it is still the same. A poor person cannot make a living there."