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In Phnom Penh, Tough Challenges for Migrant Workers


Drought and a dearth of land to farm have forced an increasing number of farmers into Phnom Penh to look for work. With little money and no relatives or friends, these workers face a difficult urban life.

Under the scorching heat at lunchtime, a dozen men stand in the shade under the trees near the famous Independence Monument. They are waiting for construction jobs. These days, laborers make very little money, even if they are lucky enough to get hired. At night they sleep in storefronts or on park benches.

Prey Veng province resident Savann Voeun, 22, told VOA Khmer he can only find work when a construction company needs someone. Besides construction work, Savann Voeun said he does any job that comes: cleaning toilets or sewers, working as a porter.

"There was no water to farm and there was so little land to farm," he said. "More than 20 of us decided to come to Phnom Penh to look for work."

Savann Voeun has no relatives and no friends in Phnom Penh. After living in the capital for three years, he has no savings. He said he only makes enough to feed himself. Some days, he said, he can't even make that much.

Like today. Already it is noon, and nothing.

Another worker, Savin Kang, also from Svay Rieng, said he could not feed his four children on the little piece of land his parents passed on to him. The government should offer land to the farmers and build irrigation projects in remote areas of Cambodia, he said.

"I came to Phnom Penh only a few months ago," he said. "I couldn't farm because there was no rain. I am asking the government to care for the poor people in the countryside as well."

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said Cambodian farmers are facing serious problems, adding that in the last 20 years the population of Cambodia has almost doubled, to 14 million, but the land area has not.

With diminishing land, the rich and powerful are stealing what's out there, he said. Added to that has been drought conditions. When there is no drought, there is flooding.

"Pushing for rural development and small scale industries would allow people to stay home instead of migrating to Phnom Penh and live on the streets," Son Chhay said.

Every year almost 300,000 people come to Phnom Penh to find work, he said, but most of them go into the garment factories.

Oum Mean, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor, said he hopes in the near future Japan, China, the US, South Korea and other countries will invest more in Cambodia.

For now, there is little relief for the capital's migrant workers.

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