Due to the recent outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand, tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers have returned home out of fear of the disease and in many cases due to the loss of their jobs.

Some returning migrants have brought Covid-19 along with them, including the highly contagious Delta variant, prompting the government to institute a number of policy changes in response.

In just one week, a total of 3,440 workers returned via official and unofficial points of entry, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Cambodia said on September 6.

Despite the crowds of workers continually returning some local people are still trying to leave for Thailand, convinced that they will somehow fare better than those who gave up and came home in recent weeks.

On August 21, a total of 38 people tried to cross the border into Thailand in Kamrieng district of Battambang province with the help of brokers.

Migrant voices

Serm Ser is a migrant worker from Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district who had worked in Thailand for five years. Ser said living in Thailand was not as comfortable a life as she enjoyed in her hometown, but she still went to work there because she can at least earn and save some money there.

“I worked as a construction worker in Thailand for five years and earned 8,000 baht [$250] as a brick layer if I worked overtime from 6pm to 10pm. But if I did not work overtime, it would be about 5,000 baht,” she said.

She said she had a small plot of farmland in Cambodia with a house on it, but her farm was not very productive because they always seemed to either get too much rain or in some years too little, making survival difficult.

“Aside from farming, I don’t have any other livelihood in Cambodia, so about five years ago I decided to leave for Thailand along with a lot of other people from my district,” she said.

Ser worked in Thailand with her husband and a son, but her spouse returned to Cambodia due to his illness, leaving her and the 21-year-old son to continue working in Thailand until the pandemic hit and they returned as well.

“When the situation in Thailand improves, I’ll go there again with my son because here we can hardly find work to do at all,” she said.

Similarly, a 39-year-old man who wished to be identified only as Vit said he and his wife had worked in Thailand for three years but returned to Cambodia two months ago out of fear for Covid-19.

“When Covid-19 quiets down and the borders reopen, I will return to Thailand. I earn 10,000 baht there as a construction worker. Our boss also paid for our water and electricity, so we only paid rent for our house,” he said, adding that his wife was also a construction worker earning 6,000 baht as a bricklayer.

“I live in Banteay Meanchey province and I have no rice fields or plantation. In the district I’m from, I cannot earn much,” he said.

While in Thailand, he said the overall work environment depended heavily upon what employer you worked for and whether they had a good heart or a bad heart.

“The worst bosses are the ones who cheat their workers out of their pay,” he said.

He said that previously his wife had to return home to give birth to a baby, while he continued working there in order to send money home to them.

“I wish I had enough money to build a house in my hometown instead of moving from job site to job site in Thailand, but for now I know that I must go back eventually,” he said.

Provincial problems

Banteay Meanchey provincial information department director Sek Sokhom said that in general people went to Thailand simply to look for higher-paying jobs, whether they are from Cambodia or Myanmar or anywhere else.

“Speaking generally, Thailand has a lot of development happening and a lot of construction sites. Factories there are also operating well. For workers in Cambodia the math is simple. They might earn 30,000 to 40,000 riel [$7.50 to $10] a day here, but if they go to Thailand they can sell their labour for 50,000 to 80,000 riel a day,” he said.

Sokhom said 80 per cent of people in Banteay Meanchey are farmers, but some people have sold their rice fields and migrated to Thailand to work. There are those who work at the eight factories in the province producing electronics and other goods but there aren’t enough jobs like that available yet, he said.

“They think that if they work [at home in Cambodia], they will earn less and have to spend it all. But if they go to another country, they earn more money and they can save it because there’s not as much to spend it on living how they do,” he said.

According to Sokhom, the problem the government is faced with now is the significant financial burden the migrant workers returning from Thailand represent.

“For now, the Cambodian government is heavily responsible for nearly 7,000 workers returning from Thailand. The government has to pay for accommodation, food, water, transportation and the labour to provide all of that.

“Some of the returning workers are in a state of personal crisis. When they have the strength, they go to work in another country. When they are weak, they come back addicted to drugs or infected with Covid-19.

“This is a heavy burden on the government. Almost 10 per cent of the returning workers are drug users, and they are most of the reason why Banteay Meanchey province has to fund drug rehabilitation centres,” he said.

‘Pressure from debts’

Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (Central), said a large number of workers had returned to Cambodia because many parts of Thailand were in lockdown intermittently which disrupted their jobs and there were not enough treatment facilities for Covid-19 patients.

Labour ministry spokesman Heng Sour at a press conferece on April 27 last year. Heng Chivoan

Tola said the number of Cambodian workers who were heading back into Thailand had decreased significantly in recent weeks.

“The reason why Cambodian workers made the decision to return to Thailand even during Covid-19 was because of motivating factors domestically.

“They have no jobs or occupations here because we also have a Covid-19 outbreak. Many have debts they owe to microfinance institutions that they are still trying to pay back out of fear that their houses will be confiscated – that’s a big factor. So they feel that they must risk going to Thailand,” he said.

He added that there were also employment brokers who took these harsh economic conditions as an opportunity to persuade Cambodians to go to Thailand.

“They should consider carefully because Thailand has a bad Covid-19 outbreak. So, when they go, they can’t be sure if they will get a job in Thailand that they can actually keep for very long because their region could be locked down. The worst case scenario for them is that they may contract Covid-19 and be abandoned by the authorities there,” he said.

He said another reason that Cambodian workers continued migrating into Thailand due to the difficulties faced by farmers in Cambodia due to weak domestic markets and a lack of export markets.

“So if they farm domestically [in Cambodia], their incomes from agricultural produce are not enough because they have to buy fertilizer, rent equipment like power tillers and buy gasoline. Farming has many expenses. But when they sell their produce, they do not make a profit. On the contrary, they find they are further in debt. So, despite Covid-19 they have to go to Thailand to work to pay off their debts,” he said.

Tola stated flatly that the majority of workers that he had met and interviewed that worked in Thailand were under significant pressure from debts.

“If we want to solve this matter, our state must carry out deep reforms in the agricultural sector so that we do not force our farmers to become migrant workers or labourers.

“For example, today we export yellow bananas to China. So, the state should help provide enough land for family farmers and provide skills training and seeds to them. And then coordinate with them to buy their products or guarantee a profitable market for them,” he said.

Central executive director Moeun Tola speaks to reporters in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in November 2017. Heng Chivoan

Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training spokesman Heng Sour told The Post that that the overseas labour market portals were providing more options to citizens and migrant workers contributed significantly to the nation’s economic growth through remittances totalling more than two billion dollars a year.

“The government’s domestic job creation efforts have indeed absorbed a large number of workers into the labour market, with an employment rate of up to 99.3 per cent,” he claimed.

Sour said the government’s current estimates indicate that approximately 1.2 million Cambodian workers are living and working in Thailand and the majority – about 60 per cent – are men.