Risking Closed Borders, Migrant Workers Seek Work in Thailand to Pay Debts

8 min read
Authorities at the O’Smach International Border Checkpoint check temperatures of Cambodian workers returning from Thailand, in a photograph posted to the Immigration Department’s Facebook page on March 23, 2020.

In eastern Thailand, it’s peak fruit-picking season, so across the border in Battambang’s Kamrieng district, brokers are shuttling Cambodian workers to Thai plantations every day, says Thea Sothun, 25.

Like other migrant workers who spoke to reporters in recent weeks, Sothun denies he currently undertakes the illegal crossings.

But the lure of jobs makes him consider it, he says. And the hundreds of Cambodians who have been arrested by Thai authorities since Covid-19 closed borders support his claim that it is still happening daily.

News reports have recorded more than 500 border arrests of Cambodians from March to October, most of them in Thailand and some in Cambodia.

And in June alone, Thai police arrested nearly 2,500 foreign workers, about 40 percent of whom were Cambodian workers, according to Ana Engblom, chief technical officer for the International Labor Organization’s migrant worker rights project in Asean.

Battambang’s deputy governor, Soeum Bunrith, also says that more than 1,000 people have been caught in his province while attempting illegal crossings since the border closure.

Workers say debt and a lack of jobs in Cambodia are pushing them to consider crossing the closed border amid labor shortages in Thailand, despite the pandemic. Programs to get Cambodian workers back in Thailand are in the works, but concerns remain over conditions and safety.

Workers Wanted

Thailand’s border has been closed since late March, only opening for a limited number of trucks on July 15, with informal workers along the border expressing frustration at the continued shutdown.

However, Thai plantations and factories have started to request more migrant workers, and Cambodian and Thai authorities have considered allowing about 500 workers from Battambang province into Thailand for work.

Im Rithy, the Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, is one of the first people to meet deported migrant workers as they are ferried in barred trucks back into Cambodia. As such, he’s heard both from prospective workers and local government authorities throughout Cambodia that workers want to return to jobs in Thailand.

Most of the workers who are attempting to cross during the pandemic already worked in Thailand before and want to return to pay off debts and support their families, Rithy says. Workers hear about available jobs from friends, family and former bosses in Thailand, and then generally hire a broker to help navigate the corridors for a total fee of between 3,000 and 5,000 baht, or $96 to $160.  Brokers who would usually take between 10 and 15 workers at a time are now transporting smaller groups to avoid raising alarms during the pandemic, he says.

Because they often already know their path and destination, a majority of the workers crossing the border illegally during the pandemic period have succeeded, he says.

“Mostly they know where to go when crossing the border, and they’re mostly old migrant workers who just come back, so they know clearly their destination in Thailand,” he says.

Rithy says the workers know these crossings are illegal, but they feel they have “no choice.”

“Now in Banteay Meanchey, it’s rice harvesting season, [but] the rice is quite cheap,” he says. “They tell me there is no other way besides migration.”

Covid Precautions

Bunrith, Battambang’s deputy governor, says Thai officials wanted a deal for 500 Cambodian workers to pick fruit in Thailand, but the initiative stalled after Battambang authorities sought approval from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry.

“The provincial governor made a request to get approval from the Interior Ministry, but the Interior Ministry has not replied yet,” he says.

Engblom, the ILO technical adviser, says the deal could be a good example case, as more Thai companies in different sectors will soon need more workers.

“It is very encouraging that in the case of the 500 migrants from Cambodia, the governments have agreed that these costs should be borne by the employer and we hope that the Thai government will continue to require employers to cover these, as well as other recruitment related costs and fees, rather than pushing these costs to the migrant worker,” she says in an email.

The ILO has released recommendations for reopening countries to Cambodian migrants amid labor shortages, urging destination countries to extend the period for Cambodian migrant workers to renew their permits, find alternatives to detaining illegal workers and ensure workers have proper quarantine conditions and access to social protections extended in the country.

The organization also encouraged the Cambodian government to lobby for lower visa and work permit fees, support the nation’s migrant worker centers and run awareness campaigns about legal migration and women migrants’ rights.

Dy Thehoya, a senior officer at labor rights group Central, says he is monitoring the two governments’ negotiations over worker shortages and migration, and he supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to lobby for discounted work permits in Thailand.

He says he is pleased to hear that the Thai government is pushing employers to cover workers’ stays in quarantine, but there is also a need to reduce the work permit fee so it will be affordable during an economic crisis.

However, former migrants’ eagerness to return also demonstrates that the Cambodian government needs to create a better solution to integrate migrants back into the local workforce, Thehoya says.

“Cambodian migrant workers are victims of society,” he says. “Why do I say they’re victims? They don’t have social protections to survive, they have debt, they have no money to pay for their lives.”

Securing the Border

It is hard to estimate the rate of illegal migration during the pandemic, but a previous ILO survey from 2017 estimated that even in normal times most workers’ crossings from Cambodia to Thailand were illegal.

Less than one-third of Cambodian migrant workers used “regular channels,” the survey says.

Illegal crossings form a well-trodden path, but 70 percent of the survey’s Cambodian respondents nevertheless reported having some problems, much of it due to lack of legal documentation or lack of information.

Khem Peng Thong, chief of the Prum border checkpoint in Pailin province, says there is a smattering of illegal crossings now that it’s longan harvest season in Thailand. Cambodians will try to cross through hidden corridors or wade through streams passing between the two countries in order to go unnoticed.

But he downplays the extent, saying local authorities have only caught about 100 illegal migrants in the past four or five months.

“When we meet them, we ask them to return,” Peng Thong says.

Banteay Meanchey’s deputy provincial governor Ngor Meng Chruon also says only a few people have attempted to cross the border during the pandemic. He does not provide any figures, but says there is no need to further strengthen security.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun, however, acknowledges the difficulty of policing the border.

“We cannot have soldiers or police at [all points along the] border,” Kim Khoeun says. “We put our forces on standby at locations that allow easy border crossings, but because our border is long with difficult roads, after we conduct a patrol, they get information about loopholes and sneak out.”

The Lure to Return

In Thailand, the country’s Labor Ministry announced this month that it would strengthen regulations on migrant workers, warning Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese migrants to renew their work permits by October 31 or face a fine of up to $1,602 and deportation.

And though there have been no Covid-19 outbreaks over Cambodia’s border with Thailand, the neighboring country increased its watch over its borders after three truck drivers from Myanmar tested positive for coronavirus this month, leading to a testing spree in the border city of Mae Sot.

Despite the dangers and restrictions, however, the flow of workers continues.

Sothun, in Kamrieng, says he has crossed into Thailand’s Chanthaburi province for work six or seven different times over the past five years, doing odd jobs on plantations that grow bananas, longans or pineapples, each time without proper documentation. He can earn up to 300 baht a day, or just under $10, in Thailand.

Just before the pandemic hit in February, Sothun took out a $1,600 loan to rent land to start a cassava farm in his village. He wants to try to earn an income in Cambodia, he says, and also took a job at a cassava flour factory nearby earning him $140 a month.

But he lost his crops to the floods and is facing repayment obligations, a reduced rate of about $16 per month. Sothun says he can see why workers risk crossing the border during a pandemic.

“Authorities have announced to the people to be careful, but some still illegally sneak into [Thailand],” he says. “The important thing [to workers] is the debt.”

He says very few of his fellow commune residents who have snuck across this year have been caught, largely because the plantations are only a short distance away.

Tha Dy, another returned migrant worker living in Kamrieng, says many workers in his village have also been crossing the border illegally throughout the pandemic, for one or two days at a time to collect fruit and earn an income.

“[Thailand] has work every day, even if [the salary] is not too high,” he says. “[Migrant workers] can come in and out often because the [plantation] owners cover for them.”

He and his wife have shuffled across the border for various jobs over the past seven or eight years, but the opportunities come with a cost, Dy says.

“We are living with fear because we illegally go there,” Dy says. “First is the fear of being arrested and second is the fear of being mistreated.”

Dy has taken out a $2,000 loan to buy a street food cart, and so far his cart is doing well, earning between 30,000 and 50,000 riel per day, or between $7 and $12, but he has not completely turned his back on migrant work.

“Frankly, I don’t want to go back because I started my own business,” he says. “If it does not work moving forward, I will go back.”

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