CAMBODIA: People in my village work as unskilled laborers abroad.

A deep personal insight into today’s life in rural Cambodia.

Cambodian rural village.

An article by Ou Ritthy published by the Asian Human Rights Commission.

At first, I could not recognize the group of noisy skinny youths, about 20 in all, with dyed hair, ragged jeans and colorful shirts, drinking beer in this remote village in Pursat where I live. Their clothes and behaviors tell me they are not from the village. I thought they must be friends or relatives of some villagers. Normally, villagers here wear Kroma (scarf), or pants with or without shirts.

Then someone in the group shouted to me to join the group to drink. As I walked closer to them I realized they were all my friends. We used to tender cattle together in the last ten years.

They told me that they had been drinking beer since the early morning; they were proud of their capacity to consume alcohol. One of them complained that it’s now hard to find and buy the popular and affordable Leo and Change beers, both Thai products, which were out of stock in Pursat during this Khmer New Year.

They told me they never had so much fun together; for these three whole days of the New Year, they confessed, each had already spent 200,000 riels ($50) to enjoy themselves, to buy and drink beer and home-made alcohol (the popular SraSor the people in Pursat love), dance to loud music through the night, and gamble (card games and KlaKlok). They were celebrating as they and their family members had just returned from work in Thailand.

I also met some villagers who could not pay for their entertainment during the New Year. They had not earned enough money. Worse, some were arrested and jailed in Thailand for a few months for working illegally. A few people who were injured in work accidents in Thailand became disable, and had not been able to help their parents in the rice-field. Sadly, their parents had to sell land for their medical treatment. And I met a villager, near death, who was very sick and skinny as she contracted AIDS/HIV while working at the border.

In my village and in the neighboring villages, young women go to work as maids in Malaysia; men go to work in agricultural and fishing sectors in Thailand. Villagers with high school education go to work in South Korea in the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, all of them are unskilled workers. It’s gloomy for me to see the youths commonly known as future citizens of the once Khmer Empire that ruled Southeast Asia seeking jobs as unskilled laborers abroad.

Many 16 to 25 year-old young ladies in my village who worked as maids in Malaysia, returned home with illness and some mental problems. I met two young ladies, my neighbors, who returned home abnormal with serious mental challenge. They cannot recognize their family members. They cry without reason most of the time. What happened to them in Malaysia?

In general, the people in Pursat villages emigrated to other countries for work because of the lack of jobs in Cambodia. My former elementary schoolmate, now 26, married with two children, told me, “I have no option but to leave my family to seek work in Thailand with other fellows. … farming, a traditional job, does not provide enough income; raw materials like fertilizers and gasoline are expensive, the price of rice produced is too low.”

When the Khmer New Year ended, all those people were packed into taxis to travel back to the Thai border to work. Unfortunately, as usual, some of them ran short of money to even pay for their transport back to work in Thailand. Their parents either borrowed money or sold properties for their children to travel with a hope that the latter would send them some money from abroad.
I was growing up observing that the people in my village who worked in Thailand were all unskilled laborers; unskilled no matter how long they had worked. Thus, they earned very little, and had no money to care for their illness or injuries acquired through work accident; they came home with illness and diseases, their parents had to sell what little they possessed to pay for their children’s medical treatments. I see this same thing happen time and again to people in my village.

Of course, with the eventual integration of ASEAN in 2015, Cambodia will not be able to compete with such unskilled and under-educated population. Cambodia will not benefit as she should from the ASEAN integration. In the short run, I only hope that despite the lack of employment in Cambodia, the ASEAN community will help Cambodian workers to work in ASEAN member countries legally. However, in the long run, I believe that being unskilled workers in agricultural and industrial sectors Cambodian workers will face unending health problems, and ultimately they will end up back in Cambodia with sickness and even mental challenge. In this context, they will pose problems for their families and society. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to create more jobs in the country, reduce the price of raw materials, and look for markets for Cambodian farmers. At the same time, the government should gradually increase or impose higher tax on imported goods and services from other countries in order to increase steady domestic productivities.

I am so much touched by the speech of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San SuuKyi at the World Economic Forum in Thailand where she emphasized the most urgent task to create jobs for the Burmese people, especially the youth, whom she said, have been in the wrong path, wasting time at tea and pub shops. She strongly insisted on the need for quality basic education and secondary school education, to create skills and abilities to work.

Having been brought up in this remote provincial village, I can relate to what Joel Brinkley wrote in his book, Cambodia’s Curse, “Cambodia sits at the center of a poverty-stricken region. But by almost every measure, Cambodia is the poorest.”

As a matter of fact, education in Cambodia is worse than that in Burma. Yet, Burmese civil rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi expressed grave concerns for the future of her country even though Burma’s education is better than ours. Why are we, Cambodians, not worried enough about the poor quality of our education?

Perhaps the majority of Cambodians doesn’t have any idea or doesn’t care to seek to be informed about education in other countries. Since almost all printed media, especially the televisions, are either affiliated with, or controlled by the government and the ruling party, hence, are a mouthpiece of the regime that disseminates quantity over quality, most of the Cambodian people, especially those living in the provinces, are uninformed of quality education in other countries.

A Khmer saying goes, “Live like a frog in the well.” The well is their big world. The light above the well is an unknown; what’s in the well is much better than the situation under Pol Pot.

In my personal experience in 2008, when I told people in my village that I was going to study for a bachelor’s degree in India many discouraged me from going because “India is dirt poor; life is hard, and India is no better than Cambodia!” But in my three years of experience in India, I found Indians to be far better than Cambodians in almost all aspects of life, including education, health care, infrastructure, water supplies, electricity, employment, GDP per capita, life expectancy, low cost, and so on.

Back to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San SuuKyi, she bemoaned Burma’s lack of quality basic education as the cause of joblessness that ultimately breeds hopelessness in her people.

Therefore, the Cambodian government must seriously take action to improve the quality of Cambodia’s basic education and reduce corruption in all levels of administration. The Cambodian government always boasts of how large numbers of Cambodians can access education in the country, and of Cambodia’s high educational achievement portrayed by new school buildings and many schools in the country.

In reality, Cambodia has many school buildings but very poor quality education. One reason is the very low salaries for teachers who need to survive, and the pervasive corruption from low level school to the ministry of education. While the government should limit the number of students enrolling at tertiary level and offer more vocational training skills to those who finish or quit secondary and high school education so that the society can absorb the huge number of laborers emigrating abroad to find work.

All at once, the government must create employment linking the agricultural and industrial sectors and create small and medium enterprises (SME) in at least district or commune levels to absorb those workers in order to boost domestic economic productivities. Parallel with this, attracting foreign direct investment is tremendously crucial for Cambodia, and reforming and improving the legal system to become independent and neutral based on the rule of law is a must.

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The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:
Ou Ritthy is a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune University, India (2008-2011)

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