BEK PEANG VILLAGE, Kampong Cham province – Chea Sokunthea and Dorn Sreyneang were excited in August at the prospect of travelling abroad – their first time outside of Cambodia. The cousins joined the more than 1.2 million Cambodians living overseas as migrant workers, most of whom left the country for better economic prospects.
Having grown up in a village with little resources or job prospects, the two left for Japan on August 23 to work at an egg processing factory and vegetable farm, respectively.
“I feel excited because I never expected having a chance to go there,” said the 22-year-old Chea Sokunthea, at her home in the central lowlands of the Mekong River.
While Chea Sokunthea will have to stand all day sorting and packaging eggs, Dorn Sreyneang will use farm machinery to grow potatoes and radishes. But it will be better than working at the garment factory, they told VOA Khmer.
The two jobs have their own challenges, they admit, including being away from their home, but these are outweighed by the financial benefits it will bring their families.
The two of them made around $200 a month each – a little higher than $182 minimum wage – at a garment factory and were able to save not more than $50 a month.
However, with a salary of around $1,200 a month in Japan, Chea Sokunthea said she can save at least $500 to send back to Cambodia. Her accommodation and living expenses are covered by the employer, giving her an opportunity to save approximately half of her salary.
“I can earn more money than in Cambodia,” Chea Sokunthea said. “That is why I want to go there and earn money for my parents at home.”
The cousins join the growing number of Cambodians who have left the country to find better job opportunities. Despite Cambodia’s consistent, official growth rate in recent years of around 7 percent, the benefits of this development have not reached most Cambodians, especially in rural areas, nor have they created enough new and better paying jobs.
While numbers vary for the exact number of migrant workers overseas, the Cambodian Labor Ministry in 2018 reported that around 1.23 million Cambodians worked abroad. The neighboring country of Thailand was the premier destination for migrant workers, totaling more than 90 percent or 1.14 million workers.
South Korea accounted for around 49,000 workers, followed by Malaysia with 30,000 workers, and Japan having around 9,000 workers. Other migrant destinations include Singapore, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.
The business of sending Cambodian workers overseas is fraught with risks, such as trafficking, substandard working conditions and recruitment agencies defrauding prospective workers. However, for Cambodian workers, the financial benefits are worth the risks.
“I want to work overtime more and more so that I can earn more money,” said Chea Sokunthea. “I go for earning money, so I need to work hard.”
Her cousin, Dorn Sreyneang, who also worked as garment worker, echoed the same thoughts as her cousin. She expected to earn more money than at her job in the garment factory, but a lot of that money would go towards repaying the microfinance loan Sok Savorn, her father, borrowed to pay a recruitment agency – the princely sum of $3,500.
For that money, the cousins were trained for nine months in language skills and work-related tasks. They said they were asked to perform tests, such as lifting a 15-kilogram piece of metal and sorting gains of rice with chopsticks to test their patience.
Chea Sokunthea’s father, Thuy Dy, also took a loan of $2,000 from a microfinance institution and smaller loans from relatives to pay for his daughter’s training and travel costs.
With their families taking on additional debt, the cousins will have to remit money to help repay the loans – a common occurrence for overseas workers, who remitted $1.4 billion back home last year.
A 2016 International Organization for Migration report stated that apart from the lack of jobs, a significant majority of Cambodian migrant workers migrated within or outside the country because of indebtedness. And the opportunity to work overseas only adds to that debt burden.
For both fathers, the borrowed sums are large, but they feel it will pay off in the long run.
“Everyone who works there [in Japan] has better living conditions now and there is not any problem,” said Sok Savorn, who is a soldier and runs a small grocery story in the village.
Direct from Bek Peang to Japan
Chea Sokunthea and Dorn Sreyneang are not the first to leave their village for Japan. The two fathers, while initially skeptical of their daughters travelling to Japan for work, had many of their concerns allayed by neighbors in the same village.
Long Voeun, a farmer and mother of 11 children, said two of her daughters were working in Japan on vegetable and fruit farms. Having to also take a loan of around $5,000, Long Voeun was pleased that her family had paid off the debt and her husband, Suon Phoeun, said the family was finally able to save money every month.
“Before, if we are sick at night, we needed to borrow money from others. But now we have money for medical treatment,” he said.
Bek Peang village chief, Chin Ly, said a number of villagers, mostly young men and women, had worked in Japan or South Korea, substantially improving the financial situations of their families.
Seng Nory, a 58-year-old resident of the village, first sent two of her daughters to work at a vegetable farm in Japan. With the improving financial prospects, two other children are now keen to work in Japan when they finish school.
“I don’t force them, but they want to go by themselves,” said Seng Nory, a farmer and mother of six children, recently told reporters. “They say after they finish school, they will go [to work in Japan].”
Recruitment fraud and labor abuses persist
The residents of Bek Peang village recount to reporters the best of overseas migration. But the practice has seen a large number of cases of trafficking and fraud globally and in Cambodia. Reports suggest workers in Thailand are informal and unregistered making them vulnerable to workplace abuses.
Domestic help have been trained and sent to Malaysia over the years, with a number of cases emerging of alleged torture and hostile work environments, requiring rights groups to intervene and help repatriate these workers back to Cambodia.
Even Japan, which has instituted higher technical requirements to ensure labor-friendly migration, has seen cases of alleged fraud. The Phnom Penh Post reported in December 2017 that 11 workers alleged fraud by a recruitment agency they had paid to find them a job in Japan.
Chhim Sokhama, vice president of a recruitment agency called Kizuna HR Asia, said that while the agency charged around $3,500 per worker, the money was only for training and preparing the workers.
“We don’t make any promises with them that they will be chosen to work in Japan,” he said.
He said that while the agency monitored the workers for three years, they made no guarantees about the quality of the company or promised work.
“We can’t guarantee that the companies are good, but we trust the implementation of laws in Japan since they have been evaluated by Japanese authorities,” Chhim Sokhama said.
However, Japanese media have reported that employers violated labor laws with foreign workers, in some cases not paying them for six months or misleading workers to expect generous overtime work and pay.
Dy Thehoya, a program officer with the labor rights group Central, said the worker recruitment to Japan needs better management, adding that recruitment agencies too often were finding ways to defraud Cambodians.
“In some cases, the [agencies] are just schools for teaching [Japanese] language but they recruit workers. Some take $1,000 or $2,000 but then the [workers] can’t go [to Japan],” Dy Thehoya said.
He said that training fees can sometimes reach $6,000, which is a huge burden for farmers, many times forcing them to take loans. “What if they are cheated,” he added.
Central had received a complaint from more than 100 people who said they were not sent to Japan as promised by the company.
“We have also received cases of missing workers and working overtime from 4 a.m. to midnight,” he said.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training could not be reached for comment.
Despite the potential risks, Chea Sokunthea was eager to go to Japan and get to work.
“I don’t feel scared since other people [I know] are working there,’’ the 22-year-old resident of Bek Peang. “They said and they told me that there are no problems and the boss is good.”