Labor Migration: An Emerging Development Challenge for Cambodia

CISS Commentaries No. 8, November 30, 2015
By Chheang Vannarith

With an estimated 300,000 young Cambodians entering the labor market every year, the Cambodian government faces a great challenge to equip these young people with the required skills to meet the needs of the labor market, facilitate their mobility, and provide them with job-matching services. The domestic labor market does not generate enough employment opportunities and provides relatively low wages compared to the neighboring countries. As a result, Cambodian workers are pushed and pulled to migrate to other countries to look for job opportunities and higher incomes.

Out-flow migration helps reduce the mounting pressure falling upon the government to provide sufficient job opportunities for its growing young workforce. Cross-border migration is the coping strategy for some Cambodian workers in order to support their livelihood and family although there are certain risks and uncertainty along the migration process and journey. Due to the lack of skills, the majority of Cambodian workers are employed in labor-intensive industries.

The outflow of Cambodian migrant labor workers to regional countries, particularly Thailand and Malaysia, is a relatively new phenomenon in the region. Only in the early 2000s did labor migration start to become one of the key issues for both research and project activities in Cambodia. According to various research findings, Cambodian migrants choose to migrate to other countries as a “short-term coping strategy” to overcome economic difficulties. The push factors accounting for Cambodian outbound labor migration include poverty, high unemployment, and low incomes, indebtedness, landlessness, lack of access to natural resources, and natural disasters.

Driven by these push factors, Cambodia is rapidly emerging as a new source of labor supply of unskilled and low skilled workers for Southeast Asia. There are about one million Cambodians working abroad. Thailand and Malaysia are the two main destinations. The occupations of these migrant workers concentrate on labor-intensive industry and services such as manual laborers, factory workers, fishery sector, domestic helpers, agricultural workers, and low skilled service workers.

Irregular migration is the core issue faced by Cambodian migrant workers seeking opportunities abroad, given its convenience and lower cost. The main causes of irregular migration are the lack of information and skills, chronic poverty, and the lengthy, expensive legal recruitment process. The majority of irregular migrants face serious labor and sexual abuses. In turn, migration does not really help their households to overcome poverty. The most common problems are non-payment or underpayment of wages, confinement to the workplace, poor working conditions, long hours, physical violence, and communication problems due to language barriers.

Irregular migration mainly stems from the lack of institutional tools and resources, international cooperation, legal framework, and intervention mechanisms to protect the workers’ rights and promote the welfare of migrants. Irregular migration constitutes a significant part of Cambodian migrant workers especially in Thailand. Irregular migrants are more vulnerable to human rights violation and labor abuses. Such an environment prompts the government, in cooperation with international organizations, to develop comprehensive migration governance focusing on migration data collection and analysis, policy design and implementation, institutional capacity building, inter-ministerial coordination, and international cooperation.

The migration-related issues for Cambodia center on weak institutions for migration management, a poor protection mechanism for migrant workers, weak inter-ministerial coordination and multi-partnerships, lack of transparency and accountability in the recruitment process of the migrant workers, high costs of sending the migrant workers, bureaucracy and corruption related to passports and work visas, lack of a standard work contract between the migrant workers and employers, and inadequate pre-training of migrant workers.

Poor communication and mismanagement of remittances is another challenge for migrant workers. According to the study by International Organization for Migration (IOM), it was found that the lack of information and understanding among the Cambodian migrants and their families in managing the remittances lessens the effectiveness of poverty reduction. Remittances are mainly transferred through informal channels and used to meet a household’s basic needs, in particular healthcare and food, rather than invested in a small family business.

In 2005, the Royal Government of Cambodia created an inter-ministerial working group with functional participation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, and the Cabinet of the Council of Ministers. This working group focused on matters related to Cambodian migrant workers in other countries. Some inputs from civil society groups and international organizations were incorporated into the national migration policy.

It took five years for the government to issue some relatively detailed policy issues and recommendations. In 2010, in cooperation with the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Cambodian government issued a policy paper dealing with Cambodian cross-border migration and migrant workers going to other countries. The policy focuses on three pillars: governance of labor migration, protection and empowerment of migrant workers, and harnessing labor migration for development.

The revised migration policy 2015-2018, which was issued in early 2015, also emphasizes these three pillars of migration management and governance with elaboration on the measures and action plans.

The revised migration policy provides holistic approaches for managing migration. The next phase of migration policy development needs to re-emphasize the productivity and reintegration aspects for returning migrants, as in the next few years, Cambodia will face a huge challenge due to such migrants. A social and economic reintegration program needs to be developed to assist them, and public funds should be created to finance small business plans of entrepreneurial returning migrants.

Labor migration is a key development issue for Cambodia. Without proper institutions and mechanisms, migration will creates more challenges and troubles for the Cambodian society and long-term socio-economic development. With effective national and international institutions, and international cooperation, migration is potentially a source of development and regional community building.

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