In an apartment in central Phnom Penh, a group of 20 Cambodian women, many of whom have lost their jobs in Cambodia’s flagging garment sector, gathered recently to discuss finding work abroad.
Among them was Kong Soviet, who suddenly smiled when she considered her prospects of work in an electronics company in Malaysia.
“I hope I can save some money during these two years in Malaysia, so that I can make a better living,” said the 29-year-old, who was laid off at a Takeo province factory two months ago and has been applying for jobs elsewhere ever since.
Like tens of thousands of factory workers, Kong Soviet lost her job in the wake of the global economic crisis, as orders from buyers in the US and other countries dropped off.
Since August, some 70 garment factories have closed shop, leaving around 60,000 workers unemployed.
Thousands of construction workers have lost their jobs, too, as projects shut down or were delayed. Residential construction has declined up to 40 percent since the global financial crisis began.
That has meant an increase in the number of workers looking for jobs in other countries.
Since mid-April, the number of Cambodians applying for overseas jobs, including in Thailand and Malaysia, has jumped 30 percent, according to On Bun Hak, chairman of the Association for Cambodian Recruitment Agencies.
“Most of them are workers who lost their jobs from the construction sector,” he said.
Oung Chan Rithy, who runs a recruitment agency, said her company had not in the past received applications from garment factory workers, but that has changed.
“Those who lost their job from factories and want to get a job overseas have increased around 5 percent,” she said. “That number will sharply increased in the coming months after the season for rice seedlings has passed.”
Cambodia sends some 7,000 to 8,000 legal workers to Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, each year, according to the Association for Cambodian Recruitment Agencies.
Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 people work in Thailand illegally, in construction, tourism and services like domestic help.
Remittances from these workers is $200 million to $300 million per year.
At the onset of the financial crisis last year, demand for employment fell, as neighboring countries felt the contraction of the markets, but in the past few months, labor demands from Malaysia have increased, On Bun Hak said.
That has been due to stricter laws of emigration in Indonesia, which feeds much of the Malaysian demand, he said.
South Korea has halved its own foreign labor quota, but around 2,000 workers have managed to find work there, said Heng Sur, chief of administration for the Ministry of Labor.
Ya Navuth, president of an immigration agency watchdog called Kharam, said limited job opportunities in Cambodia will now lead to an increase in both legal and illegal work abroad.