Migrant workers in desperate search for jobs at risk of human trafficking
08 March 2022
Updated May 27
The covid-pandemic has left countless Cambodian migrant workers without a livelihood. As job opportunities return, so do chances for unscrupulous brokers and traffickers. This imminent labour rights risk needs to be a priority for companies sourcing from the region.
In Southeast Asia, Thailand has become a key destination for migrant workers, forming a part of the workforce crucial to the country’s export-dependent economy. In 2019, there were close to 2,9 million registered migrant workers in the country, while the International Organization of Migration estimates that including informal workers, the actual number was 4 to 5 million. Most come from neighboring Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar – countries with extreme poverty rates and few livelihood options to offer their populations.
Thailand’s economy was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving migrant workers among the first to lose their jobs as employers responded to the crisis. Already in June 2020, an estimated 700,000 migrant workers had lost their jobs and it is estimated that in Cambodia, over 260,000 migrant workers have returned home – many due to job losses but also out of fear of contracting Covid-19 with no access to social protection.
Returning migrant workers are in many cases left without any support by Cambodian authorities. Cambodia-based NGO Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) runs a field program through Swedwatch’s member organisation Diakonia, supporting migrant communities with food and medicines, and trainings on safe migration.
In a meeting with Swedwatch, a 36-year-old worker who took part in the program detailed the hardships he and his peers endured in a Thai food processing factory. He claims the management ignored an outbreak of Covid-19 and had the workers continue as normal, and that only around 300 out of several thousand employees were tested.
“When the management realized that almost all of them tested positive, they stopped the testing. They were afraid there would not be enough workers to keep the factory running”, he said, adding that many who were not tested showed serious symptoms of Covid-19 without receiving any treatment or being taken to the hospital.
“Several workers died in their rooms. Their families received only 30,000 Thai baht (approximately USD 900) in compensation.”
A 33-year-old and 7 months pregnant woman said she had nothing left in Cambodia when she had to return from Thailand, as she had sold her land to pay off debts to the illegal brokers that once took her there.
“Now I have no money, no income, no land. Nothing to provide for my child. After I have delivered the baby, I will have to go back to Thailand to find a job.”
This time, she says she wants to find employment through formal channels.
“But if I cannot afford to pay for it, I will have to go with the illegal brokers again.”
See recorded interviews with migrant workers here.
Videos: Cambodian migrant workers tell their stories
Report: Shattered Dreams
Report: Trapped in the Kitchen of the World
The Cambodian NGO Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) runs a field program in migrant worker communities to provide families with food, medicines and health products, and to conduct trainings in safe migration.
Debt-based coercion and increased trafficking
Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, migrant workers in Thailand were exposed to severe human rights violations. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, many have experienced physical violence, sexual abuse and harassments that leave them traumatized and scarred for life.
Still, many migrant workers see no alternative but to go back now that Thailand has reopened its borders. Many are heavily indebted after having borrowed money to pay for costly recruitment fees. When they lost their jobs due to lockdowns and massive job layoffs, they did not only lose a means to support their families but a way to pay off their debts. Unable to afford new costs of regular migration, many have no choice but to migrate using illegal brokers which makes them vulnerable to human trafficking. Those with irregular status are particularly vulnerable; fear of deportation, language barriers and lack of knowledge of their rights place them in heightened risk of coercion, violence, and trafficking.
“Covid-19 has pushed increasing numbers of migrant workers to use illegal brokers in search of new jobs. The risk is imminent that many are being deceived, leading them deeper into debt bondage”, says Dy Thehoya, head of anti-human trafficking and migration unit at Central.
Dy Thehoya emphasizes that foreign companies sourcing products from Thailand need to be aware of these risks, and that they have a responsibility to respect the rights of migrant workers.
“These supply chains generate billions of US dollars in revenue every year. But migrant workers barely earn enough to survive. They are repeatedly abused and often caught in modern slavery situations.”
“Buying companies can play a crucial role to ensure that employers and suppliers respect migrant workers’ rights. They have the right to a life in dignity. No one should be able to buy goods produced by the bloodshed and suffering of migrant workers.”
Videos detailing human rights violations
Swedwatch in cooperation with Central and Diakonia, developed a series of videos detailing human rights violations experienced by migrant workers. The videos cover topics such as wage theft, forced labour and occupational safety and health.
Video #1. The Pandemic has had devastating impacts
Video #3. Women face dual challenges
Video #5. Restricted freedom of association
Video #2. Forced labour practices
Video #4. Violations at the workplace