Cambodian labor rights officials on Friday called on their government to address challenges undocumented migrant workers in Thailand face obtaining legal employment on the eve of a registration deadline that could see tens of thousands deported or imprisoned after months being idled by coronavirus restrictions.
Thailand’s Ministry of Labor reported last week that nearly 120,000 Cambodian workers have registered to work for up to two years in the country since announcing the requirement on Jan. 15 and warned it would take action against any foreigners who fail to do so by Feb. 14. The ministry said the move is part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within Thailand’s borders.
Dy Thehoya, a migration program official with Cambodian labor watchdog Central, told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that more than 400,000 Cambodians are believed to be working illegally in Thailand and said around three-fourths of them could be thrown out of the country or detained after the registration deadline passes.
“Thailand is calling on workers to register for a pink card, but it is complicated and costs a lot of money for them,” he said, referring to the documentation needed to work legally in the country. “This is a major problem for our Cambodian workers now.”
In addition to the complexity and cost of applying for pink cards, Dy Thehoya said migrant workers are also susceptible to scams as they try to circumvent the normal registration process.
He called on Cambodia’s government to request that Bangkok extend the requirement to register and urged authorities in both countries to take action against brokers who exploit Cambodian workers by charging them higher prices to obtain pink cards. Without taking such measures, he said, tens of thousands of migrant workers will be forced to return home, while others will continue to live in Thailand without any legal status.
Challenges for the undocumented
Thailand’s strict immigration measures have already left many illegal Cambodian migrant workers unable to earn enough to feed or house their families.
Nuon Bon, a construction worker in Thailand’s Chonburi province, said he and his family had been living in the country for nearly 15 years, but had been unable to work for the last two months due to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing them to seek shelter at a local pagoda.
Nuon Bon told RFA that he can occasionally drum up a small amount of work, but not enough to pay for a pink card, which costs around 10,000 baht (U.S. $300). He said that because he doesn’t understand the law, he asked local nongovernmental organizations for assistance in registering, but worries that he will be unable to afford any related fees.
“We have not registered yet because we have no money,” he said.
“I am waiting to see if I can give some cash to my old boss so that he can get a card for me. If we don’t have one, the authorities will arrest us and send us back to Cambodia.”
A Bangkok-based sanitation worker named Hem Mom said her employer had docked the wages that she and her daughter receive in exchange for obtaining pink cards for them.
She said they were happy to do so to avoid falling prey to scammers that would have charged them much more money.
“They cut 500 baht ($17) from our salaries over the course of one and a half months,” she said. “We are Khmer, and they have helped make us happy.”
RFA was not immediately able to contact Cambodian embassy officials in Bangkok or Cambodian Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour for comment on the workers’ concerns.
But Cambodian diplomatic officials in Bangkok have said the embassy is unable to help the migrant workers and suggested they register for legal employment.
There are about 1.8 million Cambodians working in Thailand, of which more than 400,000 labor illegally—mostly for plantations, landscaping companies, and private homes.
Even those who are registered to work in Thailand say it has been difficult earning a living during the pandemic, as the economy struggles, and jobs have dried up.
Ngai Ngoc, 21, told RFA that since the first coronavirus infection was discovered in Thailand in January, he has been unable to find a full-time job and only earns around U.S. $10 a day.
Another worker named Phoan Sopha said she no longer has overtime hours and has dealt with salary delays.
Worker Sreang Kim Srong said that even though the job market has shrunk in Thailand, it is still better than Cambodia, where there is no work to be found.
He said he sends home the money he earns in Thailand so that his parents can pay off their debts to the bank.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translation by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.