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South Korea Suspends Immigration Permits

South Korea has temporarily suspended labor contracts for Cambodian workers, claiming they will have to wait until April 2010 before they can renew work there.

South Korea supplies a limited number of contracts for Cambodian workers each year, but the country has been hard hit by the global financial crisis and has sought to limit the number of foreign workers coming in.

More than 2,000 Cambodians will go on a waiting list until South Korea decides how it will approach migrant labor in 2010.

None of the fifteen countries with so-called migration quotas for South Korea will be able to send workers, “from this month until March,” said Heng Sour, head of the Ministry of Labor’s administration department.

South Korea accepted 17,500 workers from 15 countries in 2009, a reduction of 46,500 from the year before. In 2009, Cambodia sent 1,800 workers, down 3,000 from the year before, a drop of 40 percent.

Cambodia will send workers to South Korea after a new quota is decided by Seoul in April, Heng Sour said.

The two nations signed a labor agreement in 2006, and since then Cambodia has sent nearly 5,000 workers to South Korea, making that country the third-largest receiver of Cambodian migrants, behind Malaysia and, in a typical year, Thailand.

The majority of Cambodian migrant workers go into garment manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and domestic service.

Malaysia and Thailand usually annually accept 10,000 Cambodian workers between them. But the continued diplomatic row with Thailand, combined with the economic downturn and an ongoing border dispute, has lowered that number.

“This year we sent between 2,500 and 3,000 people [to Thailand], only because we’ve seen the bilateral relationship get worse and we are careful,” said An Bun Hak, president of the Cambodian Labor Agency.

However, he said, more household servants have been going to Malaysia recently, a jump from 3,000 last year to 12,000 this year, following a suspension of immigrant labor by Indonesia.

South Korea is the best destination for Cambodian workers, said Touch Sophoan, the national coordinator of immigration safety for the International Labor Organization.

“Cambodian laborers, even in Thailand, in Malaysia, are facing discrimination in gender, facing unlimited working time, are under pressure for liberties and are facing reductions in salary,” she said. “We are noticing that they receive a high salary and with good working conditions in South Korea.”

Experience in South Korea can be a boon to Cambodia. High salaries mean good remittances, while professional jobs mean experience, said Bruni Maltoni, an immigration expert at the International Organization for Migration.

“The Cambodian government has to make efforts then to cooperate in sending out Cambodian laborers with good working conditions, and especially when local workers lose jobs,” he said.

The government estimates job losses of around 70,000 since the economic downturn hit here in October 2008, with 70 garment factories closing.

“The government has to enlarge international employment for job losers,” said Anne Ziebarth, a factory adviser for the ILO.

Government officials say they are trying to extend Cambodian labor to Japan, Hong Kong and Kuwait.

But Cambodian workers are still weak in competitiveness compared with Vietnamese workers,” Heng Sour said. “And they are too slow in productivity.”