Some of the roughly quarter million Cambodian migrant laborers who flooded home from Thailand over the past 18 months when the coronavirus pandemic killed their jobs are desperate enough for work that they are risking arrest and COVID-19 infection to sneak back across the Thai border to do menial labor, workers and NGOs say.
Unable to find work to support themselves in Cambodia, which has been under a serious of lockdowns to fight rising infections, they are making risky illegal border crossings and working as scavengers and scrap collectors in Thailand.
“I crossed the border illegally,” migrant worker Pen Vin told RFA’s Khmer Service in Bangkok. She and three others spent an entire day trekking through a forest to get to Thailand and was once arrested in Cambodia for trying to sneak across the border and sent home, before heading to the border again.
“I didn’t have money to buy food, so I decided to return. I don’t have any rice fields. I have nothing to do,” said Pen Vin, who has joined legions of trash pickers who sift through rubbish and collect plastic and other items that can be sold.
Yat Nem, an unemployed migrant from Cambodia’s Pursat province who lives 20 km (12 miles) outside of Bangkok in a town called Chachoengsao, told RFA that she is unemployed and scavenging to make a living. She said that four of her fellow jobless migrant workers have just recovered from the coronavirus.
The 41-year-old woman, who earns about U.S. $50 every two weeks selling what she finds, said she does not want to return home during the health crisis and will continue to scour trash, collect plastic, fish, or clean houses in hopes of landing a job in Thailand so she can save money before returning to Cambodia.
Other migrant workers said they took many risks to reenter Thailand without official documents — paying traffickers to help them cross the border.
Another laborer, Y Pring, who is still in Cambodia, said he wants to go back to Thailand because he hasn’t been able to find a job months after returning home.The 32-year-old said he would prefer having a decent job in Cambodia to going to another country for work, but local jobs do not pay enough to support his family and pay off debt.
“I want to return [to Thailand],” he said. “I don’t have a job in Cambodia. I want to work there for two more years so I can save to start a business.”
Made jobless by COVID
More than 2 million Cambodians — about half of them undocumented — are thought to be working in Thailand, where per capita GDP is U.S. $7,300, about five times that of Cambodia. They work mostly in the agriculture, fisheries, and construction sectors, where they are vulnerable to human slavery and labor abuse.
Made jobless by economic shutdowns to combat coronavirus, nearly 240,000 returned from Thailand from March 2020 through Sept. 8, according to the International Organization for Migration in Cambodia.
As of mid-August, about 1,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand had contracted the virus as case numbers climbed in the region because of the highly contagious Delta variant.
On Wednesday, Cambodia recorded nearly 106,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, including 637 new ones, and 2,154 total related fatalities, including 14 new deaths, according to the Health Ministry.
The situation has been more serious in neighboring Thailand, a nation of 70 million people, with more than 1.5 million total confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 11,252 new ones, and nearly 15,800 deaths, recorded on Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Public Health.
Sun Seiha, president of the Cambodian Migrant Workers Foundation, said many laborers in the country have called other migrant workers still in Thailand, trying to land jobs through their contacts so that they can return.
He urged the Cambodian government to create more local jobs rather placing restrictions on border crossings between the country and Thailand.
“The government should speed up its vaccination program and open up its borders,” he told RFA. “The government also need to prepare legal documents for workers to avoid being cheated by traffickers and breaching [Thai] immigration law.”
RFA has not been able to determine how many Cambodian migrants have made a U-turn back to Thailand after repatriating during the pandemic. Cambodian Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently ordered Economy and Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth to invest U.S. $5 million to help local workers and migrant workers get agriculture and fish-farming jobs.
Most workers would rather find better-paying local jobs than work in Thailand, said Dy Thehoya, senior program officer at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
While some have found work farming and raising livestock in Cambodia, their incomes are not enough for them to eke out a living and make debt payments, forcing many to return to Thailand, he said.
“The government should invest in vocational training so that after the COVID-19 pandemic, the migrant workers can find jobs locally,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.