Washington--Thailand is warning it will expel 1.5 million illegal workers from the country, a move that could affect around 160,000 Cambodians.
Rights workers in Cambodia say the migrant laborers deserve assistance from both Thai and Cambodian authorities to help them work and travel legally.
Migrant workers earn around $200 a month in Thailand, working long hours in poor conditions on construction projects, farms, fishing boats and other enterprises.
Thai authorities pushed back a Dec. 14 deadline to deport undocumented workers, but Cambodian officials and labor activists say Thailand will not give permits to workers any longer if they do not have passports. Thai officials say the measure is meant to curb human trafficking and exploitation of workers. But many Cambodian workers say they have little choice and are willing to take risks to illegally work in Thailand.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong is scheduled to meet with his Thai counterpart next week, for wide-ranging talks that could include the migrant worker question.
Rights groups say Cambodians won’t be able to afford their own passports and other documentation if they want to continue to work in Thailand legally.
Meas Saneth, a labor advocate for the group Caram, said the deportation will affect Thailand’s economy and the living standards of workers.
“We think there will be a new procedure to allow them to extend or continue their work” in Thailand, he told VOA Khmer. But new paperwork will also take the cooperation of employers, he said.
“Workers should use a legal and governmentally recognized company before going to work abroad,” he said. “So when they arrive in that country, they have the right to healthcare access, and their rights are protected.”
Other advocates for greater documentation say they should be made free of charge.
“Because the workers do not really save money,” said Moeun Tola, a labor advocate at the Community Legal Education Center. “What little backbreaking money they have they sent back home.” And many of the workers are illiterate and easily cheated abroad, he said.
In 2011, the Thai government said it would stop issuing work permits for Cambodians with only certificates of identity and pushed for Cambodia to get passports to its workers. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said this would require a lot of work, “so let’s talk to our Thai partners about the issue.”
Som Phal, 32, worked in the suburbs of Bangkok for about six months earlier this year. He told VOA Khmer he prefers to go to Thailand as an undocumented worker, because waiting for a legal brokerage, passport and other documentation takes too much time and money.
“In my village today, people use the short cut rather than wait for a passport,” he said.
However, short cuts have a downside, and workers often don’t get what they hoped.
Som Phal said he was supposed to work for a full year in Thailand, but was put in the wrong jurisdiction and was returned to Cambodia with the promise that a company would help him come back within 15 days. That was six months ago.
Loak Leap, 56, said two of his eight children work construction in Thailand. They don’t have legal status, but their employers take care of the paperwork, he said. He cannot afford to get them passports, he said, so illegal work is worth the risk. And he has little choice, he said.
“No matter from what district, province or commune, almost every family around the country has members who go to work in Thailand,” he said. They are attracted by the money, he said, despite the risks, and work abroad is better than staying in the village, jobless, “to face famine.”