Cambodia and Japan are scheduled to sign a memorandum of understanding in Tokyo in late March to improve opportunities for Cambodian workers.
The Ministry of Labor confirmed this in February after Japan amended its immigration law, opening up opportunities for Japanese companies to directly hire skilled workers from overseas to fill the shortage left by its aging population.
But labor rights activists are concerned that the changes will not address the issue of labor exploitation if there is no clear recruitment process and terms of employment.
“That’s kind of positive, in principle, a positive step forward by the Japanese government,” said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator for the Mekong Migrant Network. “But at the moment in reality it’s unclear how they foresee how direct hiring will be actually implemented.”
Activists are worried that recruitment agencies will exploit loopholes in the law.
“All this information is very unclear,” said Harima. “And because the information is unclear to workers, we see that there’s a huge ... space for any broker who wants to take advantage for this lack of information.”
Cambodia is one of eight Asian countries, including as China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, which are expected to benefit from the new law.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, told officials in February that the Cambodian government said a clear set of rules on how to hire employees directly and how to define the role of recruitment agencies should be created.
More than 9,000 Cambodians are working in Japan under the Technical Intern Training Program, earning about $1,500. Some 300,000 additional skilled workers are expected to become eligible for the scheme under the new rules.
But a Japanese government report released in 2016 found that 70 percent of companies employing trainees have committed human rights abuses. Some of the trainees were forced to work long hours and were paid less than the minimum wage. Others were forced to work overtime. Workplaces did not meet workplace safety requirements.
“We can’t quite see how under this new visa category we can solve this problem of violations of labor rights by employers,” said Harima.
Activists suggested that the best solution was to limit the fees companies can charge from workers. Currently, the cost of recruitment is up to $6,000.
“What concerns me the most is that recruitment agencies in Cambodia always act at will without any close monitoring from the labor ministry,” said Hay Vanna, a Cambodian activist in Japan. “Japanese companies tend to respect the law better even though some companies tend to operate in the grey area.”
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said that Cambodia is ready to strengthen its cooperation to create a "great opportunity" for the two countries.