In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) Programme Manager Khun Tharo said Cambodia needs urgent and effective pressure to prevent another outbreak as well as a migrant worker crisis.
Tharo: The outbreak of COVID-19 in parts of Thailand where there are many migrant workers, such as Samut Sakhon, is forcing tens of thousands of migrant workers to return home. Cambodian workers leave their work in Thailand because they fear COVID-19, but many are leaving because they have no more work due to the economic crisis or the fact that they are illegal workers as the Thai government is imposing strict measures on foreign workers. One big problem that we have found is that Cambodian workers in Thailand do not have access to information and updates disseminated by Thai authorities.
KT: When such an influx of migrant workers suddenly makes their return to Cambodia, what do you think are the repercussions?
Tharo: Without effective border control, undetected COVID-19 cases will enter Cambodia and lead to local infections. The number of migrant workers who test positive for COVID-19 is increasing. There could be some who want to escape quarantine and try to sneak across the border. This is what we are worried about. A tight border is needed and the country cannot afford even a single mistake. This is only possible through close collaboration between the two countries and the risk is too big if either of them stops paying attention.
KT: For the migrant workers who have already arrived in Cambodia and completed their quarantine, do you think Cambodia’s labour market is big enough to absorb them?
Tharo: If we look at the labour-intensive industries in Cambodia right now, it is hard to find employment. Both garment and tourist industries, two key sectors, have been hit hard by the pandemic. The government must come up with emergency assistance to help them while they are looking for new jobs, learning new skills or waiting to return to work in Thailand. The current social aid programme can only fill a small part. Also, the Cambodian government must negotiate with Thailand to seek help for Cambodian workers such as to legalise them so that they can have access to the emergency relief programme implemented by the Thai government.
KT: How about the Cambodian migrant workers in faraway countries? What are the challenges they are facing and how should their country help them?
Tharo: We have found information on many Cambodian migrant workers in Malaysia without jobs, especially those who have gone there to work illegally. The situation will be worse as Malaysia has declared a state of emergency. Help for them requires the Cambodian and Malaysian governments to talk about how to meet their daily needs. The collaboration between the two states, I believe, will be more effective than the help provided by NGOs, unions and so on.
KT: Do you have any message for the Cambodian migrant workers who are still outside the country?
Tharo: I want to call on them to follow the preventive guidelines from the countries they are in while keeping themselves updated with the latest information. If they have any serious problems, they must not hesitate to contact the Cambodian embassy or the labour rights organisations such as CENTRAL to help them. We have to be in this together.