The plight of the returnees

Widow Tav Seak, 46
Widow Tav Seak, 46, relived her terrible experiences during her​ border crossing, and claims she was hit over the head with a Coca Cola bottle.​ Thik Kaliyann

The plight of the returnees

Thousands of workers who fled Thailand to return home to Siem Reap province last month now don’t know what to do to survive.

While tourism and its ‘green gold’ brings many jobs to Siem Reap, the province still has about 20,000 unskilled workers who need to find employment in neighboring Thailand. But workers who went to Thailand were forced to return last month because most felt unsafe and either decided to come back by themselves or were made to return by Thailand’s military. About 2,000 undocumented workers returned to Puok district, and more than 3,000 to Kralanh district. But few can find work.

“I don’t know what to do, I just need a job to live my life,” Oun Han, 25, told The Insider. Nine members of Han’s family in Ketteyos village in Puok district had left their house empty for several years to work in Thailand, but decided to come back after receiving a phone call from a relative.

“We were told that the Thai army arrested a lot of undocumented Cambodian workers. We didn’t know if it was true or not. But we were so worried about our family’s safety that we came back by ourselves.”

Han said the undocumented workers always had to hide from Thai police because they didn’t have legal temporary residence permits.

“Based on my own experience of working in Thailand, I can say that it’s not easy and I was always thinking about what would happen if we got caught by police. But if we don’t work there, we will die of starvation. “

Oun Han said that he had to pay a broker $77 to smuggle him into Thailand, where he was lured by the promise of high wages and that each member of his family would be paid the same amount. His daily pay in Thailand was $9.20, but for some months he didn’t get paid and he could not ask for explanations from his manager.

“Because this was not Cambodia, I had to keep silent even though they didn’t give me my salary for several months. I had to shut my mouth because I had no choice,” Han said.

But despite all that, Han still wants to work in Thailand as that is the only place where he can get a job.

Meanwhile, Han’s father, Oun Lub, 47, who worked in Thailand for three years on a pineapple farm, said he has decided to find a job in Siem Reap even though he has never before been able to find work here.

“I am thinking what job I should do, but I will try to find one,” he said.

While talking to the returnees, I walked along a muddy road in Puok district’s Dontok village, surrounded by trees, rice fields, villagers’ small houses, and farmers who were already farming their rice paddies.

I came across the house of a widow who had suffered from meningitis for three years. She was sitting, eating lunch with her 13 year old child and talking about her terrible experiences during the border crossing.

Tav Seak, 46, who divorced her husband after finding out he had another wife, looked at her son with tears and remembered the day that the Thai army raided the place where she was working, along with 14 other Cambodians and workers from Myanmar and Laos.

“It happened so suddenly that there was no time to think of anything else besides trying to escape by breaking the wall of the construction site where a broker’s car was already waiting for us. But after driving us out, the driver left us in the forest.”

She said more than a hundred workers slept on the ground in the rain in that forest for two days with no drinking water or food. But there was no escape – they were found and arrested by Thai army personnel and detained for three days.

Oun Lub, 47
Oun Lub, 47, who had worked in Thailand for three years as a labourer on a pineapple farm, said he has decided to find a job in Siem Reap.​ Thik Kaliyann

“They checked on us and they took all that we had, even my hand phone and my money,” Tav Seak said. “My head was beaten several times with a Coca Cola bottle and other men were beaten with wooden sticks. We shouted for help, but there was nothing we could do. They detained us for three days and then sent us to the border.”

She had worked in Thailand for 18 months where her daily pay was $6.70, but now she’s back home with nothing. She really wants a job in Siem Reap, but doesn’t know how to find one. Faced with an uncertain future, she appealed to the Siem Reap authorities for help.

“Because of poverty, me and my son suffered terrible things like this” she sobbed.

“My son had to quit school because he wanted to help me work in Thailand. I really need help, please. Tell me what should I do?”

A 19 year old young man from Sronal commune, Kralanh, spoke anonymously and said he used to work for a company in Thailand that forced workers to use drugs.

“The one who forced us to use drugs was a Thai manager,” he said. “If we refused to use drugs, he would beat us or tell the boss that we are not good workers or that we’re lazy. If we used drugs, he would sell to us when we needed. One time I refused, and he hit me badly.”

The young man swore to his family that he will never go to work in Thailand again as it was a sort of hell.

“They cheated us a lot with our salary. No matter how hard or how long you have work, you will never pay off the loan,” he said.

Bun Tharith, deputy governor said he has been working with authorities to address the problem.

“We asked the workers what are their difficulties and their needs. Some wish to go back to Thailand and we have to make sure that they can go to work there legally,” he said. “But some who are afraid after what happened at the border wish to work here so we give them information about jobs and how they can get a job. If they have land, we encourage them to farm it and our experts help them.”

Chan Chamroeun, an ADHOC official in Siem Reap, complained about the carelessness of authorities in taking care of their own people.

“Siem Reap is tourism province, but the income that residents get from tourism is very little and cannot meet their living expenses,” he said, adding that most of the workers are farmers, but local authorities lack capacity to find markets for villager’s products.

“This was also the reason why they took risks to go to work in Thailand. Poverty forced them to go there,” he said. ​


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