Migrant Workers in Thailand Returning to Jobs as Outbreak Eases

4 min read
Migrant workers wait at a border checkpoint while military trucks pass in a photo posted to the Banteay Meanchey provincial administration’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021.

Some Cambodian workers in Thailand say they have been able to resume work after a series of tough months amid a surge of Covid-19, though challenges remain even as the outbreak is subsiding.

September has seen a turnaround in some of their fortunes, but they said they still weren’t vaccinated and feared infection, and their earnings had merely returned to barely getting by.

According to daily reports from the Thai health authorities, the number of new Covid-19 cases since mid-August has dropped from more than 20,000 a day to around 13,000 as of Wednesday.

Mit Sara, a Cambodian migrant in Nakhon Pathom province, said on Wednesday that he and some other Cambodians living in the same workers’ camp had just started getting some work again from the beginning of September after waiting about four months.

During that time, jobs disappeared amid the spread of Covid-19 — particularly the Delta variant — that led to travel bans and lockdowns. Migrant-heavy industries, such as factories and construction, became Covid-19 hotspots.

The father of four, originally from Siem Reap province, said he had enough work now to be able to just pay for his daily necessities. It wasn’t full time, and he couldn’t send money home, but he hoped to return to his old job soon, he said.

“Last month it was really bad. But during this month, we got some work and it can support us for another month,” Sara said. “Our boss already answered yes for having a new job to start working soon.”

He had waited to return to his old employer in construction, he said. He had worked at 888 Engineering and Construction for years, and his boss was like a friend.

He had been invited to switch companies, but had turned it down, he said.

Another construction worker in Nakhon Pathom, Heng Sreynop, said she and her husband had just found a job at a new construction company after deciding to leave their old camp where they had foraged for fish and shellfish to support their living over nearly four months of joblessness.

The 26-year-old migrant worker, who has been working in Thailand for three years, said that for now her financial problems had been relieved.

“Yes, we already got it, brother,” Sreynop said, though she added that workers who stayed at her old camp were still struggling.

“There, they haven’t got it yet. No one has work. They are there still sleeping. After I asked if there would be work to do and they said there still wasn’t, I decided to leave.”

In Bangkok, Kao Yeut, a Cambodian worker at a wood processing factory, said that for him work was still intermittent.

Cases continued to be found at his workplace, forcing him to stay home again and take Covid-19 tests, he said.

“The work is the same. There are Covid-19 cases too. I get a nasal swab once a week. Sometimes I work, sometimes I stay home. But if I go back to Cambodia, I won’t have what I am used to doing to make a living in Thailand.”

A month ago, Cambodian migrants in Thailand were speaking of desperation to get by without jobs.

According to a report from the International Organization for Migration released on Wednesday, nearly 17,000 Cambodian workers returned home in August.

As imported Covid-19 cases surged and, in particular, more Delta variant cases entered the country, the Cambodian government had closed the border for two weeks prior.

According to the IOM report, more than 230,000 Cambodian workers have returned from Thailand in all since March 2020.

A returned migrant, Thong Phary, said she and her husband decided to come back to their hometown in Battambang province in March 2020 out of fear of contracting Covid-19 in the foreign country as it was spreading at the time. She said they were also afraid about who would take care of their young child in their hometown.

After returning, the couple took out a loan to start a small grocery shop and raise chickens and ducks. Her husband also found work spraying plants, she said.

She regretted the decision to return home, she said, because they could only earn enough money to repay their bank loan. During their two years of working in Thailand, they could save some money toward building a house.

The 42-year-old added that she would consider returning to Thailand when the border reopens.

“Cambodia is much worse than Thailand” due to their debt payments, she said. “It’s such a struggle. But if there are jobs in Thailand, we might close our stall and go again, but I don’t know yet because it is not open yet.”

The IOM report says more than 5,000 workers returned in August through the O’Smach border in Oddar Meanchey province, the highest total among the country’s border crossings.

Dy Rado, Oddar Meanchey’s provincial spokesperson, said the number of returning migrants had now dropped significantly, from around 300 a day to about 100.

“When we just [re]opened, there were more than 300 workers, but by the beginning of September, we found that there were around 100, and the [number of] Covid-19 cases that our health officials at the border have found on them has also seen a significant drop,” Rado said.

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