Siem Reap province, Cambodia – From a distance, Pou Plang seemed no different than any other rural Cambodian village. You could see rice fields from every direction, each with a tidy wooden house along a dusty road with rutted tracks. On closer inspection, however, it became clear that the northeast village was missing its arguably most important asset: able-bodied workers.
Before the mass Cambodian migrant worker exodus last month, more than a quarter of the population of this small village worked illegally in Thailand – a nation whose abundance of jobs has drawn hundreds of thousands of desperate Cambodians.
People are poor, they can't feed the family and so they have to go abroad in order to send money back.
“In Cambodia we don’t have work. Or, we have, but the money is insufficient. People are poor, they can’t feed the family and so they have to go abroad in order to send money back,” village chief Chhoun Roth told Al Jazeera in March.
“Before, the parents cared for their children. Nowadays, it’s the grandparents who care for them. Only the elderly and the young are left in this village.”
More than 225,000 Cambodian migrant workers have poured back over the border as rumours spread of an impending crackdown by the Thai military government. Many, however, said they intend to go back when the political situation calms, although several hundred thousand undocumented workers stayed in spite of the threats.
But informal work in Thailand remains risky. While Cambodians are lured by relatively high wages, they represent a way for Thai managers to cut costs by paying them less. Because employees have no papers and representation, they must work at the whim of the boss.
At best, this translates to sub-standard living conditions and low pay. Often, too, it has resulted in unsafe or abusive working conditions, indentured servitude, or outright theft. At the extreme end, the situation has allowed for enslavement and trafficking, with Cambodians who arrive intending to work on construction sites or farms being sold as virtual slaves on Thai fishing trawlers.
Recognising the hazards, the US State Department on June 20 downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking on the annual Trafficking in Persons report, opening it up to possible sanctions.
“The majority of the trafficking victims within Thailand – tens of thousands of victims, by conservative estimates – are migrants from Thailand’s neighbouring countries who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labour or exploited in the sex trade,” the report notes. “A significant portion of labour trafficking victims within Thailand are exploited in commercial fishing, fishing-related industries, low-end garment production, factories, and domestic work; some victims are forced to beg on the streets.”
A risk worth taking
Despite the risks, many still take the gamble. Roth, who has lived in the village since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, has struggled with the transition. Each year, he watches helplessly as more and more people leave the village to look for work in Thailand.
“I always request to the government to promote more jobs in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, so that the people who are going to Thailand can come back. I don’t want the people here to have to go to another country,” he said.
When asked how many in his village live abroad, Roth, 71, jumped up and shuffled to the back of his house. He returned with a worn, but meticulously kept ledger. According to his records, 1,018 people – 200 families – live in Pou Plang. Two hundred and sixty-three of them work in Thailand; three of them are Roth’s children. None have passports.
Most of the time, workers succeed in supporting their family, said Roth.
“The 20 percent who aren’t successful, the boss cheats them and keeps the salary.”
A small percentage of the village workers face much worse luck: abuse, trafficking, and even death.
Va Sour, 67, began weeping as she spoke about her son. The 39-year-old died last year after falling from a construction site. He had worked in Thailand for nearly 10 years.
“Before, we only farmed. Nobody went to Thailand because there was fighting on the border. But when my children grew up and the border opened, everyone who couldn’t find any work here went to Thailand,” said Sour.
Like the village chief, Sour has lived in Pou Plang for more than three decades. The flight of residents has been excruciating for her to witness. All three of her children have worked in Thailand at some point in time. One son still resides there; her daughter has since returned but migrated to another province because of the lack of work.
“Nobody is here anymore; they’ve all gone to Thailand. In this village, it’s too quiet right now. There’s nobody left except for the old people.”
As Sour spoke, her one-year-old granddaughter napped in a hammock.
“She doesn’t call me grandma, she calls me ma,” said Sour. “When her mother comes back [to visit], she won’t follow her.”
The only option
While exact figures are impossible to come by, the Cambodian government has estimated that around 450,000 Cambodians work without documentation. Just 90,000 are employed legally, according to the latest government figures.
In truth, legal channels are simply unattainable for most migrant labourers. According to ILO estimates, it costs $700 to legally send a worker to Thailand.
“In comparison, an illegal migrant would typically pay $100 to be smuggled into Thailand and would not have to wait long to travel,” researchers noted in Cross-border labour migration in Cambodia, a report published in October 2013.
With a booming workforce (more than 250,000 enter Cambodia’s labour force each year) and a weak job market, Thailand has become the best and often the only option for many families.
Ye Rin, 46, works as a farmer, sells porridge on the side, and barely makes ends meet. Four of her five children have spent the last few years travelling back and forth to Thailand to take on construction jobs.
When Rin was interviewed in March, it was during a rare family reunion. Her younger daughter Rouk was home because she had recently given birth and both sons returned just two weeks before.
“I’m not sure whether they’ll go back, because he got sick,” she said, gesturing at 19-year-old Rith.
When Rith fell ill, Reak had to return as well; at 14, he is too young to stay alone. On more than one occasion, Reak found himself hiding from building site inspectors who would likely levy stiff fines (or demand steep bribes) for employing child labourers.
Rin’s oldest daughter and Rouk’s husband continue to work on construction sites in Thailand.
The money the workers earn is hardly a windfall – in over three years one daughter remitted about $2,150, another remitted $1,230 in two years, while Rin’s boys brought back $600 after their six months abroad. But as far as anyone in her family can see, it remains the only option.
“I worry about my children. I don’t have enough money, it’s not enough money for the family,” said Rin.
When asked if they would return to Thailand, Reak was emphatic, saying: “I want to go back.” Rouk said she would return as soon as her daughter turns one.
As for Rith, he had little enthusiasm about the prospect of crossing the border again.
“I want to stay in Siem Reap, but we have no jobs here,” Rith said, softly.