South Korea is a burgeoning job market, especially for young Cambodians. When working as migrants, Cambodians tend to pursue employment in the agricultural and industrial sectors. After five years in a South Korean factory, Nhor Udom, now in his early 30s, says that working in a developed country has earned him both wealth and new ideas.
“I am able to support my family in Phnom Penh and also save money for myself – so I could buy a house and land upon my return. Not only that, while working here, I have observed several types of businesses that do not exist in the Kingdom yet. When I return home, I expect to establish a small family business,” he said.
Speaking from his work place in South Korea – with heavy machinery clearly audible in the background – he said he is able send his family more than $1,000 each month.
While earning $2,000 per month, Udom estimates that his total expenses are five to seven hundred per month, allowing him to support his family and save money for his future.
He explained that earnings depended very much on the individual factory. Most factories provided accommodation on site, whereas others rented apartments for their workers. Some employers would allow workers to stay free of charge, while others would deduct the cost from their salaries.
“Similar variations exist when it comes to food. Some places provide three free meals per day, whereas some deduct the cost from our pay packets. In general, most of my contemporaries spent around $500 on food, accommodation and travel each month. This does not include health insurance and around $200 of tax obligations,” he said.
“If conditions in the factory are especially good – and include food and accommodation – then I can save over $1,000 of my basic $2,000 salary. In Korea, standard working hours are eight hours per day, but we can work three to six hours overtime, depending on our strength. This means we can earn more, of course,” he added.
Compared to industrial work in Cambodia, Udom said there is not much difference, aside from the salaries on offer.
“We are migrant workers, so language issues can be challenging for us, but they provide us with plenty of guidance in how they want the work done. They assess our work regularly and provide feedback,” he said.
He said that jobs that required physical strength are similar the world over. He noted that he earned the same salary as a Korean person doing the same work would earn.
“Korean people do not get paid more than foreign migrant workers. They will only earn higher salaries if they have better skills,” he said.
When a Cambodian worker’s employment contract in Korea ends, they have often acquired skills and knowledge that they can transfer. Udom suggested that the skills in machinery management that he had gained mean that he could probably set up production lines in factories.
He already has ambitions about what he will do when his contract is up, although he is also aware that while working abroad, he is making a significant contribution to the Kingdom’s economic growth.
“Nobody should be embarrassed if they migrate to find work in another country. What could be smarter than going to learn from a nation which is more developed than ours?” he added.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliances of Labour and Human Rights, said that migration is a legitimate option in most countries, but for Cambodia and some other developing nations, employment migration is often forced due to economic factors – it is not migration by choice.
“The migration of many of our people is forced. This does not mean that guns are pointed at our workers, but we are sometimes forced to work in other countries because there is less salary or no positions available in our own homeland,” he said.
“Very few workers return from abroad with new skills and then use them unfortunately, probably because the government does not have clear policy for workers returning from overseas,” he said.
“That’s why some returnees from Korea end up working in Thailand. Some of our workers who have been in Malaysia can speak Malay, so they can find work in Malaysian owned factories – it is the same for many of the employees of Thai owned chicken processing plants here,” he added.
The government is implementing its “Policy on Labour Migration for Cambodia 2019-2023”, which introduces legal requirements which will protect the rights and interests of migrant workers, including social protection while working and returning home.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labour and Vocational training, told The Post on September 4 that as of August, a total of 1,309,219 Cambodian workers, 532,238 of them women, were living and working abroad, with about $3 billion of remittances sent back to Cambodia each year.
Among them, 1.2 million are employed in Thailand, 23,000 in Malaysia, 11,000 in Japan, more than 800 in Singapore, 200 in Hong Kong and 43 in Saudi Arabia, said the report.
As of August 2022, 46,462 workers (10,919 of them female) are working and in South Korea, including 26,571 in the industrial sector, 18,587 in agriculture and 1,304 in construction. These men and women are contributing to the national economy and improving their families’ livelihoods, he said.
“These workers in Korea are sending $539 million per year in remittances, which is additional capital that is invested in existing businesses or start-ups, which leads to job creation in the Kingdom,” he added.
He said that besides this benefit, each worker is gaining skills, knowledge, resources and experience in their chosen sectors in South Korea, a country which makes use of advanced technology.
“These workers can learn from their positions and bring that valuable knowledge home with them when they return – contributing to the human resource development of Cambodia,” he said.
“This could also be a bridge for attracting direct investment into the Kingdom through the Korean employers who observe the work ethic and dedication of their Cambodian employees,” he added.