COVID-19 Repatriations Have Made Cambodian Migrant Workers More Vulnerable – The Diplomat

The COVID-19 outbreak has severely affected thousands of Cambodian labor migrants working in various host countries, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. These countries have responded to the pandemic with lockdowns and other restrictive measures, leaving migrant workers in uncertain situations, having to make the choice of whether to return home or to remain stranded in a foreign country with little support.

While sending countries like Cambodia have, throughout the pandemic, faced the challenge of assisting and repatriating these marginalized workers, ensuring that returned migrants have received full payments and benefits according to the laws of destination countries is a different problem entirely.

Looking back, one thing is certain: hasty repatriations complicated the efforts of Cambodian migrant workers seeking redress for labor disputes and violations of their rights. The pandemic must serve as a learning moment for countries that send and receive migrant workers alike. We need to take a more nuanced and well planned approach to repatriation, beyond using it as a form of emergency assistance. We also must be sure that the full scope of migrants’ rights are not forgotten along the way.

Cambodian Migrant Workers and the Pandemic

Reports of abuses of and labor rights violations against Cambodian migrant workers are not new. Cambodian migrants have long suffered from deep inequalities such as wage theft, overcrowded living conditions, exclusion from social benefits and workers’ compensation, as well as difficulty in accessing public health services.

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Studies conducted by regional and local organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Mekong Migration Network, and Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) reveal that prevalent labor issues occur in many forms across various occupations and industries in Thailand. Wage abuse, including not paying or underpaying workers, or illegal deductions from their pay, is the most frequent issue.

Migrant workers employed in the Thai fishing industry are among the most vulnerable populations and most likely to become the victims of forced labor and human trafficking due to their precarious situation. In 2015, the European Union decided to impose a “yellow card” on the Thai fishing industry after numerous reports of forced labor and the government’s failure to combat illegal fishing. It was only in 2019 that the ban was lifted.

Now, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers have been made more vulnerable than ever – a situation that has been complicated further by the existing gaps in domestic laws and policies of destination countries, particularly when it comes to workers with irregular immigration status.

In 2020, the Thai government introduced some urgent measures to support migrant workers, such as allowing for visa overstays and the extension of work permits. In addition, remedial measures also helped workers who were being laid off due to the economic downturn. However, only the so-called MOU workers or documented migrant workers who work in the formal sector, such as in textile manufacturing or electronic factories, have been able to claim these benefits. Thousands of other undocumented workers, or those employed in the informal sectors of the economy, were left out of this standard unemployment compensation.

Due to restrictive work permit regulations, undocumented migrant workers often depend on luck to find a respectful employer who will not take advantage of their vulnerable position. Given the power imbalance that exists between workers and their employers, even in non-pandemic times, migrant workers often cannot ask for assistance or report to the authorities when they face problems at work. In the case of COVID-19 outbreaks, unscrupulous employers may be even more likely to take advantage of the situation to terminate or return migrants without providing full compensation, wages, and other benefits.

Such issues are more prevalent when employment contracts contain “force majeure” clauses that allow employers to terminate the contract due to unforeseeable events like a pandemic. Unfortunately, some employers also take advantage of the pandemic to lay off workers, especially those who do not have proper documentation.

In early March 2021, for example, GFN factory – a food processing company located in Chonburi, Thailand that initially employed around 4,000 workers – cut 1,000 workers due to its lowered productivity. The remaining workers were required to work overtime, yet did not receive full payments and other benefits.

When 32 key Cambodian migrant workers called for safe working conditions and other social benefits for workers, the company denied extending their work permits and terminated their employment contracts. Around 300 Cambodian workers went on strike requesting that the employers take full responsibilities and compensate 32 workers who were fired unjustly, but the employer did not take any action. As a result, those 32 workers were dismissed from work without full compensation, perhaps as a way to demonstrate the threat of lay-offs to prevent other workers from initiating future strikes against the company.

From Labor Deployments to Emergency Exits

In addition, during the pandemic, migrant workers were likely already to be exposed to a risk of harm, illness, unemployment, and the loss of remittances, which are a critical lifeline for their families back home. Workers,  including those who had lost their jobs or were abandoned by their employers, found themselves stranded in host countries. Cambodian workers have sought assistance from the Cambodian embassies and NGOs to obtain lost or confiscated documents such as passports in order to secure exit clearance to leave the host country.

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After being stranded in Malaysia for many months due to travel restrictions, more than 100 migrant workers were able to return to Cambodia in June 2020 with the help of the Cambodian embassy. In another case, the Cambodian Embassy in Egypt also repatriated 27 Cambodian textile migrants who were stranded in Jordan in October 2020.

The latest estimate provided by IOM Cambodia shows that approximately 260,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned from Thailand since the outbreak. Unfortunately, official data concerning the number of workers who have sought assistance from embassies and the number of distressed migrant workers who have been the victims of rights violations is not available.

The Cambodian government, with relevant stakeholders and other organizations, has adapted its crisis response to account for mass repatriation amid a pandemic throughout the period of travel and quarantine. Hopefully these policies can be carried forward in the case of future world events.

How Hasty Repatriation Prevents Access to Redress 

Repatriation most often takes the form of assistance that facilitates migrants’ return to their home country once their work contract is over.

For instance, according to the 2003 MoU between Cambodia and Thailand on Cooperation in the Employment of Workers, the repatriation process governs migrant workers employed in the formal sector through recruitment agencies. However, the MoU mainly discusses the repatriation after the two-year work permit has expired, and does not stipulate the responsibilities of the governments to assist Cambodian migrant workers in getting back home in case of wars, pandemics, or other crises. Other existing policies expand the protection for human trafficking victims by strengthening the repatriation and reintegration process.

The unclear provision concerning the responsibilities and coordination among government agencies and the weak monitoring, however, means there is almost no meaningful recourse for workers if they are not well-treated by their employers. Such current measures provided by the government fail to provide adequate protections for distressed migrant workers.

The Way Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that repatriation policies must be made more robust when it comes to unpredictable events like the current crisis. Going forward, repatriation policies must be better prepared to deal with such “act of God” events.

Repatriation needs to be further understood as a complex process of facilitated return movement, which involves an interplay of actors, policies, and practices. The right to access redress and justice for migrant workers cannot be revoked even in an emergency such as this.

Clear procedures should be in place and related information should be well disseminated to migrant workers to ensure that they know their rights. Safe redress mechanisms must be established to allow workers to report any concerns or labor disputes without fear of risking their future employment. Sending and receiving states need to urgently address labor rights violations for migrant workers either before the workers return to their home country or after workers have already repatriated. These procedures must be designed to be efficient, accessible, timely, and less complicated, so that migrant workers can address their labor complaints.

Without due diligence, the formidable challenges of large-scale repatriation of migrant workers could impose additional rights violations on a population that is already vulnerable. Migration issues presented by the pandemic must be taken as a signal for governments to reconsider their repatriation policies in the future so that they can protect and fulfill the rights of migrant workers in any circumstances – even those we don’t see coming.


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