Recruitment Firms Enlisted to Return Migrants

The Ministry of Labor reached an agreement Tuesday with 40 labor recruitment agencies granting them the authority to endorse migrant workers to Thailand, providing all necessary permits and documents for a flat fee of $49, the labor minister said.

More than 240,000 Cambodian migrant workers—mostly undocumented—have fled Thailand this month, fearing a crackdown on illegal labor by the Thai military. The government last week reduced the price of passports for migrants from $124 to $4 to encourage workers to return to work legally.

Under the agreement, the agencies would set a fixed price of $49 for workers to obtain the permits and documents necessary to re-enter Thailand’s workforce. The price will also include transportation and even food for the journey, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said Tuesday.

“The cost includes $4 for a passport, $10 for the ministry providing legal certification to work in Thailand, $20 for a Thai work visa paid to the Thai Embassy, $10 for transportation, and $5 for food during travel,” he said.

Mr. Sam Heng said the agreement would help expedite the return of workers to Thailand, adding that only legitimate companies would be approved to offer the service.

“The ministry will require recruitment companies to share all the relevant information relating to workers and their Thai companies with the Ministry of Labor,” he said.

Before passports and working visas are processed, all workers must—either independently or through an agency—receive contracts from licensed Thai companies that clearly state working conditions and wages in line with Thai law.

The new policy would not mitigate every potential problem, Mr. Sam Heng admitted, but if managed correctly it would greatly reduce the risk of Cambodian workers’ rights being abused because they would be employed legally.

“If we apply this correctly, it will help reduce havoc and make workers safer,” the labor minister said.

Pich Vanna, chief of the Cambodia-Thai Border Relations office, said more than 240,000 workers had fled Thailand as of Tuesday, while only about 10,000 had made the trip in the opposite direction.

“This is a good policy the government has set up,” he said, adding that the prohibitive cost of passports and work permits forced many Cambodians to cross into Thailand illegally, often into exploitative jobs.

“Before when they went to work there, many were sent to work on islands and did not get paid. Others were arrested and [jailed],” he said.

However, Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, questioned the government’s decision to give recruitment agencies—many of which have poor human rights records and have been accused of sending workers into abusive situations—broad control over the process of migrating to Thailand.

“Given the government’s inability at regulating this sector in the past and dealing with gross abuses committed by recruiting agencies, it’s a very worrying move,” she said.

An Bunhak, director of the Top Manpower recruitment agency, said that under the arrangement, recruitment companies would forgo a fee from workers and rely on commission from Thai employers for recruiting Cambodian laborers.

Mr. Bunhak said legal workers are less susceptible to abuses in Thailand than in Malaysia, where conditions for Cambodian domestic workers were so poor that Prime Minister Hun Sen in October 2011 told recruitment agencies to stop sending maids to work there.

“In general, Thailand is not the same as Malaysia, since [the] type of work they go to is in factories, for example, which is different than working as a household maid,” he said.

However, Andy Hall, a researcher and migrant rights activist based in Bangkok, said Cambodians in Thailand have reported a litany of abuses by recruitment agencies. He said the Cambodian government’s plan would increase the vast control the private firms already have over migrant workers.

“Cambodian recruitment agencies have a very bad track record and the majority of Cambodian workers I meet in Thailand every day, when using their services, have fallen into situations of debt bondage and had passports and ATM cards confiscated to ensure debt payments,” he said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is seeking funding to assist the government with some of the challenges, including helping workers obtain the documents they need to return to Thailand, said Brett Dickson, the IOM’s team leader in Poipet City, where the majority of workers have returned in recent weeks.

But while questions remain about how the new process will be monitored, the sheer scale of the workers who want to return to Thailand means recruitment companies could play an important role in the process, Mr. Dickson said.

“The high fees and lengthy processing time was always a disincentive for workers to migrate legally,” he said.

“The return of so many has presented an opportunity to make [the process] easier, speedier and more efficient.”

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