Thailand plans to allow a group of 500 Cambodian workers to return to work legally in Thailand for the first time since borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, officials said on Tuesday.
Ham Samkhan, chief of the Doung International Border Checkpoint, said officials met in Thailand on Thursday about a plan to allow 500 Cambodian workers to cross the border to work on fruit harvests.
The original plan was for the workers to leave on Tuesday, but Thailand had yet to make its official request based on what was agreed in the meeting, Samkhan said.
Thai representatives at the meeting had said that the country had a labor shortage ahead of the upcoming harvest season for crops such as longan, he said.
The workers would be held in quarantine for two weeks as a Covid-19 precautionary measure, Samkhan continued, adding that Thailand promised to look after Cambodian workers’ health as if they were Thai nationals.
The first group of 500 would just be the first step. “Based on their demand for labor, it will not take much time” before that group, and more after them, is allowed back in Thailand, Samkhan said.
Khun Tharo, program manager at labor rights group Central, said Thailand was in need of workers and had extended work permits for some Cambodians who had remained there.
But he advised workers to wait until formal channels for migration — such as the latest plan for 500 workers — are reopened before heading back to Thailand.
“We do not encourage any method against or outside the existing mechanisms,” Tharo said. “We are worried that there isn’t a support [system] and there will be labor exploitation.”
He added that agricultural sectors were more appropriate for the return of Cambodian workers amid ongoing Covid-19 concerns, if they would be working in open spaces, especially compared to industrial work.
“The important thing is for the state to guarantee their well-being,” Tharo said. “We don’t want to see Covid-19 used as a cover to exploit the labor force or to violate labor rights.”
Nguon Ratank, the governor of Battambang province, which borders Thailand, declined to comment.