Informal Workers Find Jobs Easy, Conditions Poor

Young workers employed in Phnom Penh’s expansive informal economy may find it easy to get a job, but they face a high likelihood of labor abuses and receive significantly less pay than their peers in the formal sector, according to a study released over the weekend.

And though the government has plans to formalize more of the economy in the coming years, it is currently doing little to protect those workers on the margins, the author of the study said Tuesday.

Von Sreytoch, 27, sits inside a salon in Phnom Penh, where she is training to become a hairstylist. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Von Sreytoch, 27, sits inside a salon in Phnom Penh, where she is training to become a hairstylist. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

“As an observation of mine, the government hasn’t had enough plans or programs to protect the informal workers,” said Kem Ley, a researcher and political activist. “It’s interpreted that the informal workers are kept out of agenda of the national policies.”

The study, commissioned by the Youth Resource Development Program, surveyed about 380 “educated youth aged over 18” employed in the city’s informal economy. It found that workers are drawn to the “convenient and enjoyable” option of work at places such as entertainment venues or car repair shops, but have little protection once employed there.

Only 2.7 percent of informal workers said they were directly or indirectly involved in a labor union, just under 28 percent of workers have a written contract and just over 47 percent said they enjoy standard labor practices such as maternity leave and hazardous risk mitigation, according to the study.

However, 56.6 percent of workers said they generally enjoyed their working conditions, although almost all those surveyed complained of low salaries.

Mr. Ley said the study spoke to the conditions of a broader group of young workers—between the ages of 15 and 30—who make up about 33 percent of the country’s more than 9.6 million workers.

Von Sreytoch, 27, moved to Phnom Penh from her hometown in Prey Veng province in 2006 and spent the next nine years as a masseuse making about $200 a month.

Sometimes her arms would feel numb from being overworked, she said Tuesday, and eventually she decided to take an unpaid apprenticeship at a hair salon in the city instead.

“I have been learning salon skills so that I’ll be able to decide whether to work here as an employee or to return back home and run a salon,” she said. “I don’t expect anything from the government.”

Phan Makara, 25, left his hometown in Kompong Cham province in 2012 to find construction work in Thailand, but was sent back during a mass exodus of workers last year because he was working in the country illegally.

“I stayed home for a few months before deciding—with no other expectation besides earning more money—to ask for a job here as a barber, and here I am since then,” he said Tuesday at a barber stall in an alley near Phsar O’Russei.

But his pay of $120 a month, he said, has left those expectations unmet.

“It’s not enough for savings or sending money home. I can only feed myself here since the cost of living is high here,” he said.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said registering more informal establishments—a central part of the government’s industrial strategy between 2015 and 2025—would be crucial to supporting their employees.

“Once they are registered, we have more resources to help them. And once they go through the registration, I’m quite sure that the workers will be better off,” Mr. Sour said.

“We will work together with the ministry in charge of the SME [small- to medium- sized enterprises] to integrate the informal economy into the formal economy,” he added.

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