A recent call to Noun Saroeun was picked up by her young son, who passed the phone to his mom as other family members chatted loudly around her at her home in Poipet. What might seem like a normal day spent with loved ones had become a special moment after Saroeun, a 40-year-old migrant worker, was stranded in Thailand for months amid the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown. On June 2, she was reunited with her family at last.
Saroeun is one of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers who have been stuck in Thailand during the lockdown that began March 18 as the country has attempted to contain the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory virus. As of June 9, there have been 3,121 recorded cases of the respiratory virus in Thailand.
According to the Labor Ministry and migrant labor activists, tens of thousands of Cambodians fled Thailand through illegal checkpoints after the country announced the lockdown and workers subsequently lost their jobs.
Saroeun had been working for a shoe factory in Chonburi province for around seven years before the factory closed in November, shortly before the global Covid-19 outbreak began to take hold. As she was waiting for a pay-out that the factory owed her, she did not return to Cambodia immediately.
“The Thai Labor Ministry came to the factory immediately after it closed, but we didn’t see any progress [on the payments we were owed] until April and May,” she said, adding that she usually sent about $130 per month to her four children in Banteay Meanchey province.
Saroeun and hundreds of thousands of other Cambodian migrant workers who left home for better paying jobs have been struggling to find work after factories in Thailand and beyond were forced to close due to the global economic slowdown resulting from Covid-19.
Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour said via Telegram messenger that from March through the end of May, roughly 110,000 Cambodian migrant workers returned to Cambodia from their workplaces in Thailand out of the approximately 1.2 million Cambodians employed in the country.
Prak Pheaktra, a migrant activist based in Thailand who runs a Facebook page called “Labor” offering information and assistance to Cambodian workers, said that because of Covid-19, about 55% of Cambodians employed in Thailand had lost their jobs and 30% had left Thailand during the lockdown by embarking on costly journeys through illegal checkpoints. He added that the total number of factory shutdowns in Thailand was unclear as the Labor Ministry has not published its data.
Pheaktra said he has received Facebook messages and phone calls from migrant workers asking for information regarding border crossings, Covid-19, and some seeking support to pay for food. He said that of the 55 percent of recently unemployed Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, many were still waiting for the border to reopen.
“I think what they want the most is for the border to open because they do not want to go back to Cambodia through illegal Thai checkpoints. They are afraid that [if they do], they won’t be allowed to go back to work in Thailand again,” he said.
“Those who are looking to stay in Thailand are having problems paying the rent, they have to pay for food and some get stuck here because their documents expire so they cannot go home.”
For Saroeun, getting back to Cambodia was worth the money and potential loss of future employment opportunities in Thailand, so she chose to pass through an illegal checkpoint. Now, she said she wants to find a job here.
“I had to sell my motorbike to have money for the bus to get back to Cambodia; the motorbike I bought to ride to work cost around 10000 baht [$320], but I had to sell it for around 5000 baht [$160]. Somedays, I didn’t even have money to buy a meal. How was I supposed to stay there? I didn’t even have money to pay for my rental fee,” she said.
Another migrant worker, 36-year-old Sith Koy, also re-entered Cambodia via an illegal checkpoint this week at a cost of 7,000 baht [$225].
Koy said that he became fed up with the factory he worked for, after the management confiscated his passport and work permit and did not fairly compensate him for the hours he had worked.
“Sometimes, we worked for eight hours, but they only calculated it as four hours,” he said. “Although we worked overtime, they would not pay us. I had no money to send to my kids. So even if I would be arrested while crossing the border to return home, I no longer cared.”
Koy said he called the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand to ask for help getting home, but did not receive any assistance.
“I first called the embassy in April and they told me to wait. I decided to leave and said I cannot wait; I want more work and I don’t have money to pay rent,” he said.
“[The factory] did not give me back my documents; they kept all my documents, passports and everything,” Koy said. “I wanted to travel to Bangkok to find other work, but I had no documents. I could not travel anywhere because I was afraid the police would arrest me and I was also scared that I could become infected with Covid-19.”
The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand and the Thai Labor Ministry could not be reached for comment.
Pheaktra said from Pattaya that the lockdown in Thailand has made it more difficult for him to reach out to migrant workers who need help.
“If they have a problem, we can’t go and investigate for them during Covid-19 because we can’t disobey Thai rules,” he said. “Since the lockdown started, we cannot help them. I was supposed to attend a court hearing in April to observe, but we couldn’t go. The authorities are also concentrating on Covid-19 so they are less focused on other issues” such as those of migrant workers, he said.
Heng Sour, the spokesman for the Labor Ministry, was not able to provide the number of Cambodians currently unemployed in Thailand, and said that returning migrant workers seeking monetary support would have to check with the Ministry of Social Affairs or the Ministry of Planning.
However, Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Touch Channy said his ministry does not have a program in place to support Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, and referred questions regarding allowances back to the Ministry of Labor.
Ministry of Planning officials could not be reached.
Now, Saroeun and Koy are among many former migrant workers who are choosing to seek employment at home.
For her part, Saroeun is happy to be back. “Now, I am able to reunite with my family,” she said. “I will start looking for garment factory work again next month in Cambodia.”