A trusted intermediary to minimise the risk of human trafficking in Cambodia

A trusted intermediary to minimise the risk of human trafficking in Cambodia

Vun Vannary (not her real name) was 28 years old when she decided, in 2013, to listen to a neighbour and leave Cambodia to work in China. Her parents were ill and the woman was promising her a stable job like that of her daughter’s, who was already living in the Asian powerhouse.

“I decided to go with the woman’s support, because she agreed to give me everything: the passport, the visa, the plane ticket,” recalls the Cambodian woman, talking from her home in rural Prey Veng, one of the poorest provinces in the country.

Vannary was unaware that her neighbour had, through her daughter, sold her to a Chinese family and that her ’job’ for the next three years would consist in marrying a man four years younger than her, to bear him a child.

“[Once in China], my mother-in-law said to me: ‘I paid a lot of money for you, so you have no right to ask [how much], you just stay at home and work until you have a baby for my son, you don’t need to go out to work,” recounts Vannary.

After three years of hell, the Cambodian woman finally managed to return to her country, but had to leave behind a daughter born out of the forced marriage.


Broadening the options

Like Vannary, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians decide to emigrate to other countries in the region where the wages are higher, such as Thailand, Malaysia and, in recent years, China.

The Thai Development Research Institute sets the official number of Cambodian workers registered in Thailand, their main destination, at almost a million. They are forced to run the risks associated with the bureaucratic corruption involved in obtaining their papers, economic emergencies and high levels of debt, inadequate training for certain jobs or the lack of information about the jobs on offer.

It is the latter risk factor that the employment information service Bong Pheak (Brother/Sister Pheak), launched by the Open Institute NGO in October 2016 as part of the USAID Counter Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) programme, is trying to combat.

According to the research conducted by the Open Institute, the majority of Cambodians forced to emigrate for work would rather stay in Cambodia, but are generally unable to find formal employment in their country of origin. There is, however, demand for labour in Cambodia. Around 40 per cent of the 120 companies questioned in a survey carried out by USAID said they were affected by shortages of both skilled and unskilled labour.

The Bong Pheak online platform uses new technologies to boost the traditional job seeking and recruitment method in the unskilled labour market, that is, recommendations through family and friends. Some 97 per cent of companies use recommendations as their primary hiring method, according to a recent Open Institute report. “We track the way people find work and there is one very important component and that is trust,” said the director of Open Institute, Javier Solá, during the launch of the project.

Moeun Tola, executive director of the labour rights advocacy group Central, agrees that the inefficient dissemination of information about job opportunities is one of the reasons people decide to take risks when it comes to migration.

“An employment centre run by the government has a webpage, but very few people from villages use the Internet. They know (the social network) Facebook, but they’re not familiar with online jobseeking; they listen to the radio or talk to family and friends who let them know about job opportunities,” explains Tola.

Workers, most of whom have a smartphone thanks to the rapid penetration of the Internet in the country, introduce the telephone number of a relative or friend in response to a job offer on the platform. Since the majority of the people looking for work from rural areas, where 80 per cent of the population lives, have traditional telephones, the employment service contacts them by means of an automatic call, providing them with the option of being contacted by the employer if they are interested. “By giving them access to information we are giving them the option to choose,” maintains Federico Barreras, the coordinator of Bong Pheak.

During its first month, the service received 808 applications through its employment platform, which had posted 124 advertisements, offering 1580 jobs, an amount “much higher than the goal we had to set before launching Bong Pheak,” says Barreras.


Corruption and internal risks

The CTIP programme is being led in Cambodia by the international NGO Winrock, as well as being supported by the government’s National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT). For Sara Piazzano, director of the programme, the key is the fact that it offers a direct channel between employers and employees and thus minimises the risks.

“It’s the same with migration, the problem is that you still have systems whereby people are not able to get a passport or the papers needed by themselves, they always have to go through another person,” explains Piazzano.

Tola argues that the “simple reason” the government is not doing anything to improve the process for obtaining a passport is systematic corruption, which means that in some cases the process can cost as much as US$300 or more and takes months.

The most common risks faced by workers migrating to other countries are forced labour in the fishing industry, construction, agriculture, and the domestic sector, or sexual slavery.

Barreras nonetheless acknowledges that the risk of forced labour also exists inside Cambodia, and so the employers using their system are verified and subsequently monitored. The platform plans to conduct biannual inspections and will provide employees with a mechanism for filing complaints with the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, which could result in a company being expelled from the initiative.

The sectors covered by platform include manufacturing, construction, security, the hotel and catering trade, services and commerce, some of which are the focus of labour rights defenders. “The textile and footwear industry, in particular, employs people on short-term contracts of five or six months at the most, and ensures that people are not kept for more than a year or two, because after (this lapse of time) they become entitled to a seniority bonus as well as rights to other benefits such as maternity leave,” denounces Tola.

“Because there is no universal minimum wage (just US$140 in the textile sector), the salaries people working in construction or services are paid depend on the good will of the employer,” adds the executive director of Central. He also points out that the sex trade is fuelled by the dependency on tips.

Central estimates that the textile industry employs around 800,000 workers in Cambodia, 90 per cent of whom are women, and the construction industry provides work for between 400,000 and half a million people, out of a total population of almost 16 million people.

The deputy secretary of the NCCT, Ran Serey Leakhena, pointed out during the launch of the jobseeking service that when Cambodian workers emigrate to another country “they cannot be sure that they won’t be exploited”. The fight against trafficking is nevertheless being waged both inside and outside of Cambodia.


This article has been translated from Spanish.