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Migrant Work Falls as Countries Close Doors

The South Korean government has announced a sweeping reduction in the number of migrant laborers Cambodia can send there, striking a blow to an increasing trend even as Malaysia and Thailand have closed their doors to many Cambodian workers.

South Korean officials announced March 29 that a foreign labor quota would be reduced from 65,000 workers to 17,500 for 15 countries, including Cambodia.

“Due to the global economic crisis, we knew that worker demand would be cut down,” Heng Sur, chief of administration and finance for the Ministry of Labor, told VOA Khmer. “But we never expected such a large reduction. It’s four times less than last year.”

As part of the new policy, Cambodia will only be able to send 1,000 workers to South Korea, which had become a popular destination for people seeking work in factories, construction and the service sector. In 2008, the country ranked third in destinations for Cambodian labor, behind Thailand and Malaysia.

In February, Malaysia announced it would no longer accept migrant garment workers from Cambodia. Thailand, meanwhile, has banned all legal migrant workers from the country, according to Cambodian government officials.

Cambodia sent between 7,000 and 8,000 legal workers to Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea in 2008, but demand for such work has plummeted 80 percent in 2009, according to the Cambodian Migrant Labor Association.

“The global financial crisis is adversely affecting Cambodian migrant workers abroad,” Lim Sovannara, a Cambodian economist at UNDP, wrote in an e-mail. “The three main receiving countries are tightening their policies on migrant workers in an effort to free up jobs for their own people…putting greater pressure on the capacity of the agriculture sector to absorb those returnees.”

While some economists worry over the future for legal migrants, others worry the new policies will open up exploitation of migrants who seek work abroad illegally.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian government is spending $7.2 million in vocational training for workers that have lost their jobs to the global downturn.