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Migrant Workers Lack Protections: Report

The trend of workers seeking employment abroad has helped alleviate employment pressure in Cambodia, but weak frameworks and a lack of protections mean migrants remain exposed to many forms of exploitation, a national employment report has found.

The government report, due to be released later this month but obtained early by VOA Khmer, says migration can help reduce poverty, but it also points out that potential migrants have legitimate concerns.

“In this circumstance, migrant workers are at risk of exploitation by companies, employers and some officials [where] they are working,” according to the report, which was undertaken by the Ministry of Labor and the International Labor Organization.

Chuop Narath, deputy director of the employment and manpower department of the Ministry of Labor, told VOA Khmer that challenges remain in protecting migrant workers.

“First, our sub-decree and policy were created in 1995, which doesn’t suit the current situation,” he said. “Meanwhile, educational training for migrant workers before they go abroad is limited, and we also don’t have officials responsible for constantly solving the issues in countries where we send our workers.”

Protections also depend on regulations from 2006, but the regulations don’t contain solid protection measures for domestic workers abroad. Instead, the regulations are concerned with pre-departure language training and health protection.

That leaves workers open to many abuses, including salary withholding, long hours, captivity, physical and sexual abuse or trafficking. Moreover, most migrants return to Cambodia without developed skills that might benefit the nation.

“Cambodian migrant workers still have a lot of risks, because we don’t have a clear control system that allows us to observe all the workers,” said Tuos Sophorn, an ILO technical consultant. “We know of accidents only after [workers] already have a problem.”

The ILO estimated in 2007 an influx of 270,000 Cambodian job seekers entering the market each year. Only some of them will be able to find jobs within Cambodia, whether in the government or private sector.

With an increase in the population putting more pressure on jobs, the government has been looking outside the country. In recent years, at least 50,000 migrant workers have legally traveled abroad, especially to Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, according to the national policy report.

Most of the women travel to work as housekeepers or in restaurants and food factories. Men tend to work in construction, fishing, garment factories and plantations. Workers can earn between $150 and $800 a month.

More recently, the government has sought deals to send domestic workers to Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada and countries in the Middle East, Chuop Narath said.

Osman Hassan, secretary of state with the Ministry of Labor, said Cambodia will start sending workers to Saudi Arabia within the next six months.

Cambodia does not have full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of allowing serious abuses.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2008 that little is done to punish Saudi employers “for committing abuses including months or years of unpaid wages, forced confinement, and physical and sexual violence, while some domestic workers face imprisonment or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or ‘witchcraft.’”

Cambodia hopes to send between 5,000 to 10,000 workers.

“It’s a very serious matter to send domestic workers there without adequate protection, because we’ve found that none of these countries provides comprehensive protection that needs to be there,” said Nisha Varia, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “So if Cambodia wants to send its workers there, they must be prepared to handle cases of abuse.”

Lim Tith, Cambodia’s national program coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, said poor protection derives from the lack of human and financial resources in Cambodia’s embassies abroad.

“When we send more workers, more and more workers will be exploited,” Lim Tith said. “So the government has to strengthen its control system and establish a team responsible for solving migrants’ problems.”

Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the ministry plans to establish offices in countries where a high number of Cambodian migrants work.

Meanwhile, some responsibility can fall to the brokerage companies moving migrants from Cambodia to other countries.

On Bun Hak, president of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, said the association looks for high-profile companies that respect laws and human rights.

And the national policy suggests new measures to protect migrants, including distribution of public information and punishment for recruitment agencies who violate laws and worker rights.