Phnom Penh — Close to a third of Cambodian migrant workers surveyed in Thailand reported high levels of stress, depression and a low quality of life.
The research, which was released by a team of local and international academics on F1000Research, was conducted among 1,200 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand’s Sa Keo and Surin provinces, both of which house at least 25,000 Cambodian workers in 2018.
“Mental health problems were reported among migrant workers. The prevalence of moderate to high perceived stress was 67.96 percent, and symptoms of depression was 69.69 percent," the research states, adding that it was higher than a comparable study of low-skilled workers in Europe.
Around 30 percent of these workers reported having a poor quality of life, which was linked to their high levels of stress and the housing provided by their employers. Quality of life, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is defined as an individual's perception of their position in life, in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.
While the survey was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, Pall Chamroen, one of the researchers, said the findings can provide some insight into the conditions and mental health state of migrant workers stuck in Thailand.
He said the economic pressure put on workers by the pandemic would have increased the stress experienced by migrant communities. This is coupled with the substandard work conditions and living facilities, contributing to a low quality of life.
"For some workers, their employers only provide a basic amount of wood or materials that they use to build a hut for themselves, which is only covered to protect them from wind and rain,” he said. “Also, [Cambodian worker] communities are far away from the Thais who live in their villages," he added.
Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand work in multiple sectors, such as agriculture, construction and manufacturing. The research revealed that most of them have insufficient income and are indebted.
In May, local human rights group Licadho issued a report revealing a high level of indebtedness among surveyed garment workers, which was resulting in them migrating to Thailand to pay off this debt.
“Mental health programs aimed at helping migrant workers to cope with stress and to improve their living conditions will help improve quality of life in the target group,” reads one of the recommendations.
As of late September, around 1.1 million Cambodian workers continue to live and work in Thailand, according to the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand. Since March, at least 110,000 migrant workers returned to Cambodia, facing unemployment, loss of income, and more debt.
Nheb Da, a migrant worker working in Thailand for more than six years, said he, his wife and 19-year-old daughter had all lost their jobs in recent months, putting them under severe financial stress.
“We are poor. We don't have skills, so it is hard to find a job in Cambodia,” said the 44-year-old migrant worker. “Thailand offers us more [opportunities for] unskilled work.”
Loeng Sophon, a project officer at labor rights group Central, who is based in Thailand, said that most Cambodian migrant workers are worried about job stability, especially given the economic uncertainty around the pandemic.
"There are some temporary jobs here in Thailand but not many," he said. “The work is on and off, so they are still concerned."
Some cannot handle living in Thailand without income, so they decided to return to Cambodia, Leong Sophon added, even though there are no employment opportunities in the country.
Heng Sour, a spokesman at the Labor Ministry, declined to comment on the issue.
Hoeur Sethul, the president of the Cambodia Association for Counsellors & Psychologist (CACP), said migrant workers are generally facing high levels of psychological hardship, on account of their migration. He said this would have been exacerbated by the current situation of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic also caused a financial crisis,” he said. “So, it affects their daily life, which has triggered the mental health problems.”
Sethul added the support for migrant workers are mostly focused on ensuring financial stability and physical health, but that mental health interventions were minimal.