Almost Half A Million Undocumented Cambodian Workers Worldwide

A local NGO estimates there are nearly half a million undocumented Cambodian workers seeking better wages across 14 countries, with Thailand topping the table
Factory workers leave work in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Factory workers leave work in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

There are almost half a million undocumented Cambodian migrant workers worldwide seeking better pay, as of 2022, according to an estimate by a local NGO.

The 497,055 undocumented migrant workers in more than 14 countries is an estimate by the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL).

CENTRAL estimates in 2022, there were a total of 400,000 undocumented workers in Thailand, 40,000 in Malaysia, 15,000 in Indonesia, 4,000 in South Korea, 16,500 in China, 20,000 in South Africa, 70 in Kuwait, 365 in Qatar, 100 in Saudi Arabia, 30 in Jordan, 40 in Sweden and 150 in Australia.

The organisation said these workers are in the agriculture, construction, and fishing industries, while others are in prison or in a foreign country through marriage.

CENTRAL noted that more than 69 percent of workers are drawn to Thailand because they have no secure job or income in Cambodia. The NGO added that 40 percent of those need employment to pay off financial debts and because of the low price of agricultural products.

CENTRAL said that the majority of the reasons are due to workers being able to earn more money abroad than in Cambodia to support themselves and their families.

Dy The Hoya, program officer at CENTRAL, said that to legalize undocumented migrant workers, the government must provide legal documents with transparent processes by cooperating with other governments, especially in Thailand.

Hoya added that the government should set up one-stop window services in every district where Cambodians are working in Thailand.

The government should also set up low fees to process documents, such as passports and other travel documents, to migrant workers, medical check-ups, visas and work permits, or without payment for migrant workers.

The government must also ensure that all migrant workers can access relevant services. He said this should be achieved by developing both online and offline channels.

In addition, Hoya said the government should promote the process of providing legal documents in Cambodia and Thailand, and that the process is transparent and effective. The government should also cooperate with NGOs working in the fields.

“In the name of human rights defenders, we don't call them illegal migrant workers because it seems like they’ve committed crimes and we put the blame on them,” Hoya said.

“Mostly, they’ve gotten injustice from their employers, perpetrators and or by the state system, which took their money in exchange for legal documents. They were cheated. That's why we don't call them illegal migrant workers.”

Chea Sophan​ Mai, 40, and her husband were undocumented migrant workers on a fishing boat in Malaysia. They now live in Svay Rieng province.

Mai said she was paid between $25 to $50 for a few days' work, depending on the quantity of fish they caught. She added that because she was an undocumented worker, she always evaded authorities when they came to check.

“We went [to Malaysia] with my relative, who was working there for a long time, so we decided to go with him and we didn't have anything to do. We knew that we could get better work but we needed to live in fear,” Mai told Kiripost.

They will live in fear

Horn Mao is currently a legal migrant worker in Japan. He said that when people try to work illegally, they face more challenges, including the force of the law from authorities in that country.

“They will live in fear when they go out, when they see police, they are afraid. For others who work for a long time, they know how to live there. Police will come and ask us if we look suspicious,” Mao told Kiripost from Japan.

Mao said that by working abroad, he is hoping to elevate his living standards. However, for others, it depends on the company they work for.

“It is not different from Cambodia, but I hope I can get a better salary. Everyone, when they hear about working abroad, it sounds beautiful but they do not know what we are facing,” he added.

Heng Sour, spokesman at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, said the government has already arrested many brokers and has also called on people to choose legal mechanisms through legal agencies registered with the Ministry when working abroad.

“Only by going to work legally will the government be able to protect your rights, interests and intervene in a timely manner in the event of an accident,” Sour told Kiripost.

Sour declined to say how many undocumented workers there are abroad.