Yu Ya with her son and mother at their home in Battambang province in Cambodia. With no job prospects in the impoverished region, Yu Ya will soon become a migrant worker in Thailand. (Photo by Ate Hoekstra)
Yu Ya doesn't really want to go Thailand. She would much rather stay at home to look after her 1-year-old son. But the Cambodian woman feels like there's no other option.
"There's no job for me here. We only have a rice field and a small shop to sell rice soup for breakfast. That's not enough to make a living," she says in Bavel, a rural district in Battambang province.
Between one and two million Cambodians work outside their country, mostly in neighboring Thailand. With a growing population and better job opportunities across the border, Cambodia is likely to see more migration in the coming years, according to the World Bank. But the impact is huge. Families are torn apart and villages only house the elderly and young children.
Yu Ya was born and raised in Battambang in the northwest of Cambodia. It is known for its green and fertile rice fields. But apart from farming, there's not much to do.
"At least in Phnom Penh [the Cambodian capital] you have factories where you can work," says 43-year-old Yu Ya in the house that she shares with her mother and son. "Here we don't have much of that. And even if you are an uneducated worker, you will still make two or three times more money in Thailand than in Cambodia. So I will go work in Thailand, just like my husband who is already there."
The International Organization for Migration estimates that 4-5 million migrants work in Thailand, mostly from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. CENTRAL, an NGO that supports and educates Cambodian workers, told ucanews.com that Thailand could even host up to two million Cambodian workers. And just last month Thailand's Ministry of Labor announced that it will need an extra 40,000 migrants to work in the country's notorious fishing industry.
With a minimum wage that ranges between 308 and 330 baht (US$10) per day, depending on the province, workers in Thailand make up to three times more than in Cambodia. In Bavel the impact is noticeable. Several families have been able to build bigger and nicer houses or buy new motorbikes and sometimes even cars.
But not all are so lucky. Yu Ya's neighbor Sey Samn saw three of her four daughters depart for Thailand with their husbands. The 61-year-old woman looks after the four grandchildren they left behind.
"All my children work in the construction sector," Sey Samn says in her wooden makeshift house. "Each of them sends me about 1,000 baht per month. I need that money to buy food and to take care of the grandchildren. It's hardly enough."
The social impact cannot be underestimated. Most adults in Battambang have left for Thailand. Many have left their children at a very young age with grandparents, brothers and sisters. Often children only see their parents once or twice a year.
"My grandchildren don't feel much attached to their parents anymore because they left when they were only a few months old," says Sey Samn. "I especially notice it when their parents do come home because at night the children still want to sleep next to me instead of next to their parents."
The thousands of migrants working in Thailand's fishing industry face other concerns. Lengthy reports by human rights organizations and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have shown that forced labor, exploitation, abuse and even slavery are still rampant in the billion-dollar industry.
The Thai government has tried to make labor migration better regulated. A so-called "pink card" was introduced that allows migrants to work in the country for a certain period. The pink cards are widely used by workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, but the ID system is being criticized because it limits the worker's freedom of movement. It's difficult, and sometimes even impossible, for workers to move to another employer.
Yu Ya will get a pink card before she departs to Thailand. Three years ago, she crossed the border illegally and was arrested while working in a rope factory.
"I didn't have a passport or a pink card," she says. "We thought we had paid the police enough money to leave us alone, but they arrested us anyway and sent us to prison for one month. Nowadays, if you don't have a pink card or a passport, an employer won't accept you. If he hires workers illegally, he can get into serious problems."
Dy Thehoya, program officer at CENTRAL, said the number of workers going to Thailand illegally has decreased, while new laws and better enforcement have made things safer and tackled some of the exploitation and trafficking.
But still a lot needs to be done. Thailand should introduce laws and regulations in compliance with ASEAN's legal framework and ILO conventions, plus an effective mechanism to inspect working and living conditions of migrant workers, Dy Thehoya says.
Still, migrant worker Yu Ya prefers an entirely different situation. "If I could get a good income in Cambodia, I would just stay here," she says. "Even if I would only make 10,000 riel (US$2.50) or 20,000 riel per day, I would choose being here instead of Thailand. But what can I do? There are no jobs here."
Yu Ya expects to leave in the next two months. By then her son will be 2 years old. Bun Nan, her mother, will look after the kid. The 63-year-old woman isn't exactly looking forward to her daughter's migration. "I find it difficult but we don't have a choice. Right now, we just don't make enough money to support our lives", she says with a sigh.
* Additional reporting by Sineat Yon