Cambodian migrant workers struggle to survive in locked-down Thailand

As Thailand undergoes its worst Covid-19 outbreak yet, much of the country has been placed under strict lockdown. For low-wage Cambodian migrant workers in the kingdom, this has meant a lack of food, wages and healthcare, while returning home is no easy feat

August 13, 2021
Cambodian migrant workers struggle to survive in locked-down Thailand
Caption: Cambodian migrant workers at the construction workers camp at the pharmaceutical plant construction site - Hong on the right. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

On the edge of the Bangkok metro sits a nondescript construction site and rows of corrugated metal shacks, crude housing for the project’s labourers. Hardly inviting to begin with, the small homes were until last week sealed off with red tape and a clear sign offering the stark message: “No entry”. 

Hong is a documented Cambodian worker living on the site, which will sometime next year be home to a pharmaceutical plant wedged between the Sirat Expressway and the Maha Vajiralongkorn Thanyaburi Hospital in Bangkok’s satellite city of Rangsit. But since June 28, construction has been halted as Hong and 68 other Cambodian workers have been placed under lockdown as part of Bangkok’s sweeping push to halt the spread of Covid-19.

“There’s not much to eat anymore. And we don’t have enough money to buy food,” Hong told the Globe this week. “It feels like we’re trapped. We want food and we want money, and to work once again. We’re hoping the situation gets better so that we can move.”

Emerging in April, Thailand is currently undergoing its worst outbreak yet of Covid-19, with health officials recording about 20,000 new infections daily. As of August 13, the Ministry of Health has counted more than 863,189 total cases with 7,126 deaths.

The soaring caseload has led to extended lockdown measures that have stranded Cambodian migrant workers like Hong in limbo, often leaving them in subpar housing without means of supporting themselves. Though no longer under a hard lockdown at their worksite, Hong and his coworkers are now stuck in Thailand with suspended work, dependent on food and supplies from the outside, including from non-governmental organisations that provide services to migrants.

On July 4, the Thai government announced it will allow some construction projects to resume in the capital, though the future pharmaceutical plant in Rangsit is not one of them. For now, amidst ever-changing but mostly unsuccessful regulations intended to contain the outbreak, thousands of migrant workers are finding themselves stuck with no end in sight. 

Hong has the necessary documents to work in Thailand, a fact he says makes his burden that much lighter.

“We are registered as official migrants,” Hong said of his fellow countrymen on the work crew. “We do receive food supplies from government, local authority and NGOs here and there, but it is not consistent nor enough to get by the day.”

Cambodian migrant worker Hong. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

But many are less fortunate, said Saroeun Se, a consultant for labour rights group Solidarity Center, based in the eastern Thai province of Rayong. 

“The experience for undocumented workers is worse,” he said. “In the case of factory closures, the employers paid [documented migrants] 75% of their salary, but that’s not the case for the undocumented workers.” 

According to estimates by the Cambodian Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), of the some 2 million Cambodian migrants in Thailand, as many as 20% are undocumented. In normal times, this means they’re officially unable to work in the country and must live outside its social programmes. In current circumstances, it means even worse access to support and health services. 

Solidarity Center, along with CENTRAL and the Thai migrant rights group the Labor Protection Network (LPN), have been providing support to the Cambodian workers in Thailand, as has the Cambodian embassy there. Still, Saroeun told the Globe that more needs to be done.

“They should have helped the undocumented workers in time like this because their employers nor factory give them the proper support,” he said. “The support from the Cambodian embassy [in Thailand] is also not wide-ranging enough and is a little bit messy now.” 

Caption: Sign in front of the construction workers camp. No personnel in and out for 30 days from 28 June to 27 July or until further notice and to behave according to the rules and regulations of Pathumthani province for Covid-19. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

The Thai government announced that as of August 2 some construction sites can resume work under “bubble and seal” measures, in which labourers may need to live in their places of work, or travel only between their dormitories and workplaces.

For those who were already living in their workplaces, such as migrants like Hong in the construction sector, this isn’t much of a change on its own. Workers at the future pharmaceutical plant in Rangsit say they have enough freedom to move around and purchase supplies, but can’t relocate in Thailand or return home as Cambodia tightens its borders. 

An IOM Covid-19 rapid needs survey of 15 Bangkok-area construction camps conducted in early July surveyed 1,953 construction workers, 573 of whom were Cambodian migrants. Of that total pool of workers, the survey projected 92% had been out of work since the lockdown on June 28, and that 77% were in need of “urgent food assistance”.

Since the closure of building sites in June, there has been government support in terms of food. But workers like Rathana, who lives on the same site as Hong, told the Globe that wasn’t enough.

“We could not leave the area and the provided food support was also inconsistent. Therefore, I have reached out to CENTRAL asking for food and other necessary supplies,” Rathana said. He’s not alone – the labour organisation reports constant calls for food and supplies, with requests from more than 5,200 other workers in various parts of Thailand in recent weeks.

Photos from inside the construction workers camp, supplied by Hong.

We are aware of the reports of employers in Thailand trying to push migrants to return to their country of origin

As conditions look bleak in Thailand, many Cambodians, documented and undocumented, have chosen to return home. But while a stream of migrants crossed back over the border earlier this year, restrictions in Cambodia, imposed in late-July but which ended on August 12, temporarily shut the flow in an effort to keep out the more-infectious Delta variant of Covid-19 now driving the outbreak in Thailand.

Cambodian authorities had already been screening returnees for Covid-19 and mandating them to 14-day quarantines upon arrival. Still, the increasing prevalence of Delta infections at the border prompted those stricter lockdown orders for the seven Cambodian provinces along the demarcation, including the closure of border checkpoints.

Though shipments of goods and other special cases could still pass through, almost everyone else – including migrants – were shut out for that two-week period. 

“With the closure of borders between Cambodia and Thailand, migrant workers are stranded at the border needing support for food, shelter and health services,” Kristin Parco, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for Cambodia, told the Globe prior to the borders reopening on August 13. 

Still, those restrictions on travel didn’t completely stem the rise in cases. On August 7, areas around the Thai-Cambodian border at Sa Kaeo province found 213 new cases, of which 32 were Cambodian workers who had returned from Thailand. As Thai worksites closed abruptly, Parco said, some employers found their Cambodian workers unnecessary and took them to the border themselves.

“We are aware of the reports of employers in Thailand trying to push migrants to return to their country of origin,” Parco said. 

“In the Thai news article, the words ‘dump’ and ‘drop off’ were used interchangeably … Thai authorities were requesting employers who want to drop off migrant workers to return back to Cambodia to do so at immigration checkpoints, not in border provinces.”  

Access to health services for migrant workers has become even more essential during the escalating Thai outbreak of Covid-19, which is fueled by the Delta variant. In this respect, the gap between documented and undocumented workers once again becomes stark. 

Parco explained undocumented migrant workers in Thailand have limited access to testing and treatment, as they do not have proper papers to access healthcare or social protection. 

“While there are some channels through which regular migrants can access vaccines, irregular migrants can only access vaccines through alternative vaccine channels administered by the Thai Red Cross – the policy on this is still unclear,” Parco said.

“Only regular migrant workers in formal employment are eligible to access the Royal Thai Government’s social protection measures. Large numbers of irregular migrants do not have health insurance or access to social protection schemes.”

Besides the virus risks, undocumented workers also face greater job insecurity, poorer incomes and the risk of sudden wage reductions, as they don’t enjoy the same protections enforced by the government for legal workers. And while there was once an avenue for migrant workers to go from informal to formal, now even that process has been suspended. 

“The Thai government formerly asked for the undocumented migrants worker to register online to received a Non-Thai Nationality Card and work permits,” said Ling Sophon, a CENTRAL labour rights officer overseeing migrant workers in Thailand. “However, the Thai government has decided to postpone this process until Aug 2022.”

Cambodian migrant workers attempting to return to the Kingdom. Photo: Supplied

Nin Bros is a documented Cambodian migrant labourer who had worked for two years in a factory in Chonburi province, 100km southeast of Bangkok. When Globe spoke with him by phone last week, the 38-year-old had recently returned to Cambodia, where he had just recovered from Covid-19 following a July outbreak at his workplace.

“At first two workers tested positive and then a few weeks later, more workers were also infected with Covid-19. That’s when our employer called for a medical professional to examine us,” he said. “After the results were out, the employer transported all Thai workers from the area, leaving us Cambodians and a few from Myanmar in the building. Later they locked us in the room, without any care.”  

“They never informed us about anything, they only said that they will close down the factory for a week and told us to stay in our own rooms. A few days later, those who tested positive were locked inside without being informed beforehand.” 

Living on the top of the five-storey building, home to about 150 Cambodian workers with no healthcare available, Bros was anxious about his condition. Bros, his wife and two children were stuck in the small room relying on inconsistent meals provided by Cambodian overseers from the factory.

Unable to bear the situation anymore, he asked a Cambodian manager whether he was able to leave and return to the Kingdom. 

“We asked our employers for help but they never cared about us, they said they would help us but we never saw any action from them. They only forced us to stay in our room, yet not giving any medical supplies or solutions to us,” said Bros’ wife Sol. 

Bros and his wife, along with other Cambodian workers who lived in the same building and also tested positive for Covid-19, eventually left the factory during lockdown and decided to cross the border anyway and seek treatment in Banteay Meanchey province. Now recovered, they are quarantining at his home in Kampot for 14 days. 

“Some migrants have escaped from the camp or their workplace, because they couldn’t bear living with the inconsistent food supply nor proper medical help,” said CENTRAL’s Sophon.  

But not all have the means to escape their situation in Thailand like Bros and Sol. A delay in owed salaries keeps many migrant construction workers on edge – for those who want to move away, this factor forces them to stay put. 

“The company has said that they will pay, but each request has been met with ‘soon’ for the past three months, with no update,” Hong told the Globe of the situation at his own site. 

“No one has anything to do outside. Organisations and embassies have been quiet since late July.”

This article is produced as part of a grant from the Solidarity Center, made possible with funding from USAID, to support the publication of stories about issues impacting workers in Cambodia. Find out more here.

Read more articles