Cambodian workers arriving in Seoul, South Korea. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)
Cambodian workers arriving in Seoul, South Korea. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)

In 2015, Vin Dyna, then 21 years old, was struggling with the combined study load of his high school curriculum and private Korean language classes.

He turned to his mother, Horm Seang, for advice, and she recalled how she did not have to think long about her answer.

“He asked me whether to drop the Khmer or Korean classes — I told him to go for Korean class and then he passed the test,” Horm, 54, said, adding that she had encouraged her son to start Korean classes a few years earlier.

“I saw many people [in my neighborhood] going to work in South Korea. We were poor, so I decided to ask him to go to work there,” the mother of five told VOA Khmer during an interview in Prek Achi Commune, an impoverished town in a rural region in central Cambodia’s Kampong Cham Province.

Vin dropped out of high school at grade 11, but reached his goal of working in a car-parts factory in South Korea. And for almost three years now, he’s been part of Cambodia’s small army of migrant workers who leave home to support their families.

He sends home almost $1,000 per month, Horm said proudly, a large amount of money for a family living on a 3-acre farm in an area with few other jobs.

Cambodian workers at Phnom Penh International Airp
Cambodian workers at Phnom Penh International Airport waiting to board a plane to Seoul, South Korea. Cambodian workers in South Korea send an estimated $300 million home every year. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)

Nationwide, the per capita income in Cambodia is an estimated $4,000 annually, according to the CIA World Factbook. By comparison, the per capita income in South Korea is an estimated $39,500, according to the Factbook.

Vin’s remittances have helped pay off $3,000 in loans that his mother took out to cover his Korean classes and his travel to South Korea, she said, adding that the family has been able to save about $10,000 and spend $7,000 on renovating their home.

Dependent on South Korea

Iv Lyhov, the commune chief of Prek Achi, said the migration to South Korea began several years ago after several local youths found jobs there and word of the good incomes spread. Then people started swapping advice on how to migrate, and one young worker followed another.

“Villagers see that other families who sent their children to South Korea have improved their living conditions, so they start doing the same,” said Iv, adding that his daughter and several nephews and nieces have all worked there.

“Many [migrants] are youths and villagers who have one or two children. Some dropped out of school” to learn Korean, he said.

They are among the hundreds of thousands of rural Cambodians, often between 20 to 40 years old, who leave their villages for other countries or the capital Phnom Penh in search of a decent income for their families.

Cambodian workers at Phnom Penh International Airp
Cambodian workers at Phnom Penh International Airport traveling to Seoul, South Korea. South Korea is popular with Cambodian workers because it offers better working conditions, higher wages and human rights respect. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)

Internal and external economic migration have grown despite Cambodia’s robust economic expansion in recent years. Rural areas lag behind because of a lack of development and growing indebtedness, according to researchers.

Often, labor migration is a struggle. There are the risks of being cheated out of wages or abused, as well as the emotional cost of separation.

While Vin’s migration has been a financial success, it has been bittersweet for his family.

“His father blames me for him going there. If he hadn’t, he could have become a teacher” in Cambodia, Horm said.

FILE - A farmer holds a sickle on a rice field in
FILE - A farmer holds a sickle on a rice field in Gimje, south of Seoul, Sept. 22, 2009. When Cambodian workers some to South Korea for employment, they can earn $1,200-$1,300 a month in agricultural jobs.

A popular option

Among foreign destinations, South Korea is a popular option and there is considerable competition to gain a place among the 4,000 Cambodian workers that the country requests annually.

Dy Thehoya, a program officer with Central, a Cambodian labor rights group, said South Korea offered “better working condition, human rights respect and higher wages” than jobs in Phnom Penh or in other countries.

On average, Cambodian workers in South Korea earn about $1,200-$1,300 per month, if they work in the agriculture sector, and about $1,700-$1,800 in the industrial sector, according to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training.

By comparison, the garment industry in Phnom Penh pays its 740,000-strong, largely female workforce a monthly minimum wage of about $182, as of January 2019.

Cambodian workers arriving in Seoul, South Korea.
Cambodian workers arriving in Seoul, South Korea. (Poch Reasey/VOA Khmer)

There are about 54,000 Cambodian workers in South Korea employed in construction, agriculture, and in small- and medium-size industries. They annually send an estimated $300 million in remittances to their families, according to government officials, who encourage the labor migration.

Through a bilateral arrangement with Cambodia, the South Korean government handles the formal recruitment and process for temporary labor migration through its decade-old Employment Permit System (EPS), which sets an age limit of 40 years and includes a Korean-language skills test.

According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) assessment, South Korea is “one of the few Asian countries” that formally arranges low-skilled migrant labor without involvement of private agencies, while the EPS provides “labor law protections to foreign workers at the same level as those accorded to national workers.”

Additionally, men living in the South Korean countryside who have struggled to find Korean partners and looked elsewhere in Asia have married about 8,000 Cambodian women, according to government figures.

The Prek Achi Commune has met some of this Korean demand, too.

Villager Chorn Nat, 65, said her two daughters married Korean men several years ago.

“They have the Korean nationality. They come to visit us and built our house. Now, they just send us $100 per month,” she said.

Informal migration dominates

Most Cambodian migrants, however, go to other countries where they are more vulnerable because they enjoy fewer labor protections and rely on private brokers who may abuse or cheat them. A large number are unregistered and slip across the border illegally.

Labor rights groups and the ILO have long called for improved protections for labor migrants in Southeast Asia. In recent years, Thailand and Cambodia have slowly begun to regulate the cross-border flow in order to reduce exploitation and human trafficking of migrants by brokers, employers and corrupt officials.

About 1 million Cambodians work in Thailand, the main destination, and half of them are estimated to be unregistered. Malaysia is another important destination, while others go to Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Kuwait has been in talks with Cambodia to obtain 5,000 workers.

Migrants heading to South Korea are usually better educated and protected from abuse by their employers than in other countries. But they, too, face risks of labor abuses, especially if they are employed to work in the agriculture sector, according to Amnesty International.

A 2017 report found many migrants had to take on large debts in their home countries in order to reach South Korea. And once there, the migrants were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as the EPS is “heavily loaded” toward employers, who can influence a migrant’s legal permission to stay in the country, Amnesty found.

“Many migrant workers, including those in the agricultural sector, are forced to work in conditions to which they did not agree under the threat of some form of punishment, including dismissal, nonrenewal of their visa or threats of violence; they are effectively subjected to forced labor,” the report said.

Horm said she is in weekly contact with her son Vin through social messaging apps, but remains concerned over his health and safety.

“My son told me his working place is very hot,” she said. “A year ago, he cut his finger … he stayed in the hospital for month, but he didn’t dare to tell me.”

Pheap Sokha, 32, from Kampong Chhnang Province, who worked at a furniture factory in South Korea for the past 18 months as part of a three-year contract, said he experienced a heavy work load and pressure from his boss, but he had no complaints of abuse and enjoyed regular breaks and lunch time.

“The work over there is fine, but sometimes my boss is unhappy with me. ... He told me to work quickly,” he said.

“In the construction sector in Cambodia, I had lower staff and they call me ‘boss,’ but over there I am the lower staff,” said Pheap, who migrated despite his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a job in Phnom Penh.

He said the higher monthly wages in South Korea allowed him to save for his recent wedding, though shortly after the ceremony he had to leave his bride behind to finish the remainder of his three-year contract.

“I think I just work and save some money and will go back when the time comes,” he said. “I am not sure if the factory owner will extend my contract or not. If not, I will go back home.”

A rocky return

Many of the thousands of migrants who return, however, face a challenge in finding appropriate jobs in Cambodia, said labor activist Dy, who said this hinders their return and is a lost opportunity for Cambodia’s economy.

“There is no [government] plan for workers from South Korea or other countries to have jobs to do in the country that matches their skills they have learned,” he said.

Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, acknowledged this but said improved labor protections for migrants abroad were the priority.

“First, we ought to have a system of protections for our fellow migrant workers who are overseas illegally,” he said. “Second, if they are being repatriated, we should provide them with information so they can consider which jobs they can pursue and we also have to certify their overseas work skills and experience.”