It is a short bicycle ride for Cambodian migrant worker Chim Cheng to the nearest money transfer service in Thailand’s Saraburi province. The 26-year-old Battambang native saves up every month and sends his aging mother around $200.
Chim Cheng works at a meat processing facility in central Thailand. He would normally bump into other Cambodian migrant workers on his monthly bicycle ride. Last week, there were none to be seen.
Tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers have returned to Cambodia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and more recently after an outbreak in migrant worker communities in Samut Sakhon province, which has since spread to other neighboring countries.
“When I saw others going back home, I felt like going home too. But I’m afraid I would be jobless at home,” he said on a Facebook Messenger call.
Cambodian government officials have confirmed that more than 80,000 workers have returned to the country since last March when the border with Thailand was closed. Around 8,000 have returned after the recent outbreak, which was detected in mid-December 2020.
As of Tuesday, 87 of the returned migrant workers had tested positive for COVID-19. The Cambodian government has bolstered quarantine and testing facilities to keep up with the large number of workers returning through land border checkpoints with Thailand.
Soeum Bunrith, deputy governor of Battambang province, said workers were returning because of the recent outbreak in Thailand, but that many were also coming back because they lost their jobs or wanted to be with their families during the pandemic.
“I have talked to them… [some] said they have lost their jobs [in Thailand] after COVID-19 hit hard, so they didn’t know what to do. They had to come back,” he said.
Loeng Sophon, a Thailand-based project officer for Cambodian labor rights group Central, said workers were also returning because they had expired passports and visas or could not afford new costs imposed on workers who moved to a different factory, including paying for COVID-19 tests before they can accept a new job.
“Illegal migrant workers are facing an even tougher situation,” Sophon said. “Sometimes, authorities and local police go for inspections to find people who do not have documentation and they are fined if found guilty.”
Despite these challenges, workers like Chim Cheng and his 23-year-old wife have chosen to remain in Thailand and continue to work under economic uncertainty.
Sok Sinath is in a similar position; she fears being unemployed if she returns to Cambodia. The Pailin resident is currently working in Thailand’s Rayong province at a pineapple juice factory, where her monthly salary dropped in half, to around $200 a month. Her employer asked her to work only five days a week with no overtime.
“After factories closed for a month or two, workers moved from one factory to another. We were asked to work only five days [a week] and with no overtime,” she said during a phone call.
The reduced salary does not make it financially lucrative to remain in Thailand – Cambodia’s minimum wage is $198. Nor does she have money saved up to pay for travel expenses back to Pailin.
“I will have to pay a lot to get back, including 3500 baht (around $116) for transportation from where I live to the border and then make a payment to cross the border," she said.
“So, I told my parents that I will just send them some of my money.”
Chhay Ly, who has lived in Thailand for a decade and helped recruit Cambodian workers, said the recent exodus of workers meant there were some jobs available in Thailand. He was working with 20 migrant workers currently to get them tested for COVID-19 before they can work at a new factory.
At times, up to 40 workers can contact him in a week to find new jobs, he added.
“I think 40 to 50 percent [of Cambodian migrant workers] lost their jobs. They have no income; that’s why [some] have to go back home. But some are staying here and doing whatever jobs they can find to earn a living,” Chhay Ly said.
Despite having a job, Chim Cheng is anxious to get home. He left Cambodia three years ago when his wife was pregnant with their first child. Months after the delivery Chim Cheng’s wife also moved to Thailand to increase their earnings, which is used to repay the family’s debt.
Chim Cheng is getting impatient and questioning whether it is worth continuing to work in Thailand. To make things worse, he is getting homesick and is yet to meet his young son.
“Our family in Cambodia has convinced us not to go back home for now,” Chim Cheng said.
“They are afraid it will be just a waste of time, a waste of money, and having to go through 14 days of quarantine with only joblessness to follow,” he said.