From forced marriage in China to daily 20-hour shifts on fishing boats, most Cambodian workers face some kind of abuse when they leave the country to escape “desolate” work opportunities and low wages, a report from the Community Legal Education Center says.

Released last night, The Risk of Movement: Migration in Cambodia 2013 details the experiences of workers that CLEC helped free from abusive situations last year.

“More often than not, Cambodian workers will … experience abuse at the hands of their employers in their destination countries,” the report says, adding that the NGO worked on more than 100 cases of trafficking in 2013.

Although most workers are “largely migrating voluntarily”, low wages and limited opportunities domestically are proving “push factors”, forcing those desperate for money to take risks.

“As a direct result of wage dissatisfaction, many Cambodians have reported that they are being forced to migrate to other countries within the region for any hope of receiving a higher wage,” the reports says, adding that the Kingdom has not kept apace with the region when it comes to wage increases.

Among the patterns of labour migration complaints identified in the report are those stemming from domestic workers in Malaysia.

While a moratorium was placed on sending maids to Malaysia in 2011 amid mounting concerns over abuses, CLEC has “continued to receive complaints of abuse, forced labor, and debt bondage at an alarming rate”, with 35 new complaints of domestic worker abuse received in 2013 alone.

As reported in the Post earlier this month, CLEC says “the Cambodian government’s provisional allowance of contract and visa extensions for Cambodian domestic workers who traveled to Malaysia prior to the ban” have led to a “relatively high number of reports of forced contract extensions”.

When it comes to passports, many Cambodians, unable to afford one, have migrated illegally, while the system has fuelled a culture of a “debt bondage”, in which workers are bound to illegal brokers.

The problem of women going to China on the promise of high-paying garment work then being forced into marriage was made worse by unhelpful Cambodian officials at embassies and consulates, the report says.

“Despite constant communication and several requests for assistance, the Cambodian consulate service took an average [of] more than four weeks to assist the victims in each case – a period of time in which the victims were told to return to the homes of their husbands.”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong denied yesterday that embassies and consulates were reacting slowly to the complaints of victims.

“We are trying our best to help them back as early as possible,” he said. “We try to work with Chinese authorities. When we get complaints from relatives, we . . . contact them immediately.”

To address abuses, CLEC urged the government to revamp the system of recruitment by instituting a maximum waiting time for jobs, adjusting passport fees, and requiring a maximum deposit and recruitment cost, as well as government monitoring.

It also recommended improvements to domestic labour conditions and practices that could make the local labour market more attractive.

These included a living wage in the region of $160 per month.

Asked whether higher wages in Cambodia would help more workers stay at home, Kuong said he had “no idea” and that workers had “freedom of choice” to migrate if they wanted to.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached.

Contact authors: Shane Worrell, Alice Cuddy and Daniel Pye