Notes from the Field

Migration Puts Cambodia’s Youth in Danger

June 5, 2013

Cambodian migrant workers sent home $256 million in remittances in 2012, 1.8 percent of the country’s GDP and the fourth highest percentage in Southeast Asia, according to a new report from the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Latest Cambodian Ministry figures indicate that the number of workers migrating abroad legally has more than doubled over the last few years: from 53,160 in 2009/2010 to 130,000 in 2012.

Cambodia Youth Training Class

Youth clubs received training in human trafficking and safe migration, which included group discussions and group exercises. Photo/Tamara Lowe

Despite steady economic growth, many Cambodians, especially young people (more than half the population is under 25), struggle to find jobs, which has driven the rise in migration to other countries for work. While Thailand has long been one of the most popular destination countries for Cambodian workers (followed by Malaysia and Korea), the numbers are steadily rising as a result of the Thai government’s  introduction of a new minimum wage of 300 baht per day ($10), compared to 18,000 riel ($4.50) for unskilled laborers in Cambodia. While this does offer job opportunities for Cambodians, a major concern now is that a greater outflow of labor migration among young people is taking place predominantly through irregular channels which are often illegal and dangerous. These channels are low cost and fast compared to channels that use private recruitment agencies formally registered with the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MoLVT). It is estimated that as many as 500,000 young Cambodians are working in Thailand now, and anecdotal findings indicate that this, along with movement to Malaysia, is where much of the irregular migration happens.

The irregularity associated with labor exploitation and trafficking are predominantly reported from Cambodian migrants working on fishing industry in Thailand (In 2011 and 2012 alone, the International Organization for Migration reintegrated more than 100 Cambodian  male trafficking victims, most from Thai fishing boats). But alarming abuses are also reported from female migrants working as domestic helpers in Malaysia, where 34,000 documented Cambodian migrants reported working during 2007-2010.

The Cambodian National Committee to Combat Trafficking organized a national workshop in March to address the issues associated with labor migration including labor exploitation and human trafficking. Hundreds of representatives from relevant ministries and agencies, provincial departments, commune councilors, and youth attended. The participants raised concerns on the sharp rise of youth labor migration, both through regular (documented) and irregular (undocumented) channels. Participants, including trafficking victims themselves, also discussed the  high costs and the time-consuming process for registering through the regular channels, and spoke candidly about the fact that there’s not much evidence that registering through a regular channel is beneficial to them compared to irregular channels. The lack of visible protection, facilities, and tangible benefits that distinguish regular from irregular migrants undermines prevention efforts to change the behavior of labor migration from irregular to regular migration.

Her Excellency You Ay, Cambodia’s ambassador to Thailand, echoed this concern, pointing out that registered agency fees in Cambodia are often as high as 10-month worth of salary, or about 20,000 baht ($667), compared to just a 6-month salary for Burmese workers.

Due to an increase in malpractice being committed by recruitment agencies, in 2011, the Cambodian government introduced a new policy, the Sub-Decree 190 on Management of Sending Workers Abroad, which aims to better regulate these recruitment agencies. In 2012, the MoLVT went a step further, announcing it would create seven ministerial orders (known as Prakas) designed to provide comprehensive, supplemental guidelines to the sub-degree 190. As of February 2013, three ministerial orders which define specific standards for recruitment and pre-departure training have been signed by the MoLVT. The remaining other four Prakas are still being drafted and will cover issues such as complaint mechanisms, rewards and penalties for private recruitment agencies, service of private recruitment agencies on site, repatriation, and the inspection of private recruitment agencies. These remaining policies are expected to be enforced later this year.

On March 28, 2013, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced at the national workshop that recruitment agencies would be required to reduce their recruitment fees to 12,000 baht ($400), the equivalent of a 6-month salary, instead of the 10-month salary amount. He also unveiled the government’s pilot passport-making office which opened in April in Battambang province in the northwest, to help potential migrants obtain legal passports closer to their home and will reduce travel costs.

Despite efforts, Cambodians aged 15-30, who make up roughly 32 percent of the population, and who are most vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, still have limited awareness of the dangers and steps they could take to prevent themselves from becoming victims. To address this critical problem, The Asia Foundation has been working since June 2012 in partnership with the National Committee to Lead Suppression of Human Trafficking, Smuggling, Labor and Sexual Exploitation (S.T.S.L.T), and the Youth Council of Cambodia (YCC) to implement a new initiative that promotes smart labor migration among youth in Siem Reap and Prey Veng provinces.

The initiative builds youth club leaders’ capacity on trafficking and labor migration and supports them to play a proactive role in their communities by engaging them as leaders of change. The trained youth club leaders conduct outreach activities trainings, and public forums with peers and local authorities to discuss challenges and concrete steps young people should take before they decide to migrate and what steps to take if they are trapped at the destination country.

The existing efforts from civil society in particular are helping to reduce risks and increase knowledge, but it is a challenge to reduce patterns of labor migration. One of the best ways to keep migrants from going abroad would be for the Cambodian government to offer a similar minimum wage to that in Thailand, and provide competitive benefits that attract workers’ interest. Cambodia is an agricultural country, where 75 percent of people are farmers, so improving irrigation systems for example to enable farmers to grow rice twice a year, would attract potential migrants to continue farming. Milled rice export is on the rise in Cambodia, and the government aims to reach 1 million tons of milled rice for export by 2015.However, many are concerned that the significant rise Cambodian workers going abroad will result in a serious workforce deficit that will threaten the government’s plan to become a leading rice exporter in the region. To respond to the growing labor deficit, the government is working to promote more favorable job conditions through increased regulation, the recently introduced national social security fund, paid transportation allowance, and from May increased the monthly minimum wage from $61 to $80. The government is also considering introducing a healthcare insurance scheme and retirement pension funds for workers by 2015.

In the end, the government, civil society, youth, and the private sector must work together to ensure that Cambodia’s migrant workers know their rights and are free from dangerous, vulnerable conditions. Fortunately, these recent efforts seem to be pointing Cambodia in the right direction.

Lim Siv Hong is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in Cambodia. She can be reached at hlim@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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