Access to Work
Despite an economy flush with foreign investments, rising exports, and an unemployment rate under 1%, nearly 100,000 Cambodians left Cambodia in search of work in 2017. This was a 12% increase from 2016.
Although the unemployment rate is so low in Cambodia, over 50% of jobs are labeled as vulnerable and the workers underemployed. The only consistently clear and hard data on minimum wages comes from the garment industry, with wages around $180 USD per month.
Vulnerable positions and lack of sustainable wages are leading Cambodians to look for work abroad. Current estimates by ILO and IOM (International Labor Organization and International Organization for Migration, respectively) place 1.5 million Cambodians working abroad, and projections also claim nearly $1.5 Billion USD in remittances is pouring back into the country from migrant workers and businessmen.
At present, Cambodia has MoUs (Memorandum of Understandings)* with at least nine different nations to send workers abroad. These MoUs are bilateral agreements between Cambodia allowing to send an agreed upon number of workers. Formerly, Cambodia ended its MoU with Malaysia due to worker abuses, only to reestablish the agreement in 2017 to send domestic workers once again. The government also has MoU’s with Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Qatar, and South Korea. Additionally, a MoU was just signed with Kuwait, agreeing to send 5,000 workers to the Gulf State in 2019.
Workers going abroad can have very different experiences based on their destination country.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, there is a Cambodian embassy in Kuwait which could more easily assist workers. Kuwait was also the first Gulf nation to establish a minimum wage for domestic workers. However, it is common practice in Kuwait for the employer to take the passport “for safekeeping,” and the Human Rights Watch warns migrant workers of the risk of physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and deportation for minor infractions.
One only has to look at South Korea to see a better model as a migrant worker destination. Currently, Korea is home to about 50,000 Cambodian workers, who in 2017 sent roughly $260 million USD in remittances. The governments of both countries work together closely to ensure workers are paid fairly, abuses are addressed immediately, and most importantly, there is no need to go through a broker or agency for employment.
For many Cambodians, a key problem for migrant workers is their access to work. To work abroad, they must go through a recruitment agency, often incurring debt. If, however, that agency is illegitimate, a worker may be sent illegally which puts them at a higher risk of abuse and maltreatment.
To better protect workers, it may be beneficial that rather than depending on the recruitment agencies for the paperwork, having worker go directly to the embassy where they are looking for work and apply for their documentation, as is the case with South Korea. Embassies can therefore provide the contact information and address of the Cambodian consulate abroad to migrant workers, and ensure they know how to seek help if needed. Ensuring receiving nations have worker protection mechanisms in place, combined with government officials from both nations working together to swiftly address any abuses, would provide much needed additional protection.
Anti-trafficking NGOs are in a position to advocate for and develop policies for greater protection of migrant workers in both sending and receiving nations. Through our Advocacy and Case Support projects, Chab Dai is and will continue to address trafficking cases of Cambodian migrant workers, especially those in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. For victims of human trafficking abroad, our teams work with both foreign and Cambodian government agencies to repatriate them back to Cambodia and ensure they are reintegrated back into their communities.
*A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is a nonbinding agreement between two or more parties outlining the terms and details of an understanding, including each parties' requirements and responsibilities.
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