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Work permit tests confuse, mystify

People wait in front of the Ministry of Labour
People wait in front of the Ministry of Labour yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh to have a medical check as part of the requirements for a work permit. Eli Meixler

Work permit tests confuse, mystify

The government’s newfound zeal for implementing work permit restrictions has resulted in a system that has confused employees, with those who have undertaken to comply with the laws reporting a smattering of tests, exceptions and discrepancies.

The government announced in July that it would soon start adhering to work permit laws. Taking a stab at more strictly regulating its labour force ahead of ASEAN integration at the end of this year, the government kicked off the year by announcing an aggressive series of fees and fines for foreigners lacking the proper business visa and work permit documentation.

Cambodian and foreign employees in violation of the laws need to rectify the mistake by March, according to the Ministry of Labour. But while the fervour for enforcement has been cemented, the exact details of how to obtain a work permit are decidedly more flimsy.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour was unable to provide even estimates for how many Cambodian and foreign employees need the required work permit.

“I am not the head of every department,” he said.

The work permit laws, in place since 1993, stipulate that securing a permit involves an application, photos, passport and visa copies, proof of insurance and a medical certificate issued by the Labour Ministry’s Health Department.

“More than 90 per cent of the workers who come are Cambodian,” said Leng Tong, director of the health department.

But the crackdown increased the foreigners crowding into the office.

Tong said his department has acquisitioned three nearby offices and recruited additional staff to handle the influx before the March deadline.

Procuring the health certificate requires a group physical exam, which takes place assembly-style in big, white rooms, according to interviews. Men and women in white lab coats shuffle applicants to an oversized, rusted scale, then to measuring tape and onwards to a blood-pressure station.

“They added three inches to my height as the guy with the measuring tape suffered from some ‘parallax error’,” said a British national who wished to remain anonymous.

A woman said under “eye colour”, the examiner wrote “none”.

The medical check-up culminates in a blood test some avoided by proffering medical certificates from doctors, by knowing their blood type or by making a scene.

“They prick your finger with a disposable sterile lancet and collect a small amount of blood in an unmarked tiny vial. What they are testing for, if anything at all, I have no idea; this was not disclosed,” said an American university lecturer who also requested anonymity.

Tong, director of the department, said, “Mainly, we check for syphilis.”

He also said the results of the exam are disclosed only to applicants.

Officially, the fees for the test are $5 for Cambodians and $25 for foreigners. But test-takers reported a range of fees, including some who were docked $100 for each year without a permit while others had to pay no such backlog.

The French Embassy advises citizens employed in Cambodia that they could face $77 fines for noncompliance, while the US Embassy advised citizens to seek legal assistance. Sok Phal, director general of the Department of Immigration, told the Post the fine is $125.

“The cost is ridiculous,” said the university lecturer, adding that “the government’s attempt to finally follow their own laws is creating unnecessary panic”.

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