Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Backtracking on foreign labor ban reignites fears of job ‘stealing’

Chinese businessman stealing Cambodians’ street vendorsjobs. Panha Chhorpoan

A fear of Chinese barbers, tuk-tuk drivers and street vendors “stealing” Cambodians’ jobs has sparked criticism of the Labor Ministry’s backtracking on its ban on foreigners in informal work.

After instating a ban in August against 10 types of informal occupations, such as masseuses and taxi drivers, the ministry last week reversed its decision after just over a month.

“When the Labor Ministry made the regulation to ban [foreigners] from jobs that must provide for local people, that was the right decision,” said An Rama, a union organizer for the Cambodian Labor Confederation in Sihanoukville.

“The Labor Ministry hasn’t done any inspections yet to figure out how many foreigners were in violation, and instead they change this regulation to allow the foreigners to steal local people’s jobs.”

Khun Tharo, a coordinator at labor group Central, however, said it was “useless regulation” anyway that had merely responded to public fears without addressing real issues.

“I’m very disappointed with the current action taken by the Labor Ministry to adopt or take up labor regulations without consulting with stakeholder about the impact and implications of the laws — how they could affect and impact the livelihoods of working people,” Tharo said.

There were gaps in legislation for workers in major sectors such as construction, hotels and services, he said.

In recent months, those sectors have pushed for a mandated minimum wage similar to the garments sector.

Cambodian workers should be given the same wage as foreigners when they perform the same type of work, Tharo said, adding that protections were also necessary to ease job losses.

“The previous regulation banning foreign workers from undertaking some types of occupations in Cambodia was only done in response to the public’s reaction about the Chinese workforce ‘stealing our jobs,’ which I found to be very useless regulation,” he said.

“The priority, I think, should be for the government to enforce existing laws such as immigration laws, [and] the registration of work permits.”

The Labor Ministry issued a notice on Oct. 5 annulling its ban on foreign workers in informal work, which was only instated on Aug. 28.

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the backtracking on the ban was made to appease investors.

“There’s demand for more skilled labor to support and attract more investors,” he said. “Any foreigners who work or do business without registration or without paying tax will face legal action.”

An influx of Chinese investment and tourism into coastal Sihanoukville has sparked concerns of Cambodians missing out on the boom. Many Chinese businesses and visitors have shown a preference for hiring Chinese people rather than locals and going to restaurants and other services run by Chinese.

Rama, the union organizer, added that many locals felt squeezed by rising prices due to the influx, especially when they failed to see a similar rise in opportunities.

“The hairdresser who used to have a small shop for their business, now they’ve lost their place because they can’t afford to pay the rent and now do business with a cart,” Rama said.

He wanted the government to ensure that foreign investment goes toward big businesses that can employ Cambodians, and that Cambodians currently in informal work could find more opportunities to enter formal jobs, he said.