PHNOM PENH: Cambodia is planning to cap hefty recruitment fees imposed by labour brokers on people seeking jobs abroad in a bid to curb illegal migration and protect workers from modern-day slavery.
More than two million Cambodians are estimated to be living and working abroad - most of them in Thailand - where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are undocumented due to the high costs and therefore vulnerable to labour abuses, activists say.
Cambodians who migrate to Thailand through official channels pay recruitment agencies about US$650 to facilitate the move, while those who make their own way across the border spend as little as US$30, said advocacy group the Mekong Migration Network.
But Phnom Penh is finalising a plan to bring Cambodia in line with Thailand's main labour source, Myanmar, where agencies are not permitted to charge people looking for work abroad more than the equivalent of US$100, according to a government official.
"Stage one is to put a limit on the fees charged by recruitment agencies," Horn Usaphea, an official at the foreign ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of an event in Phnom Penh this week, without giving a timeframe.
"But our ultimate goal is for zero fees, with employers and recruitment agencies to bear the costs," he added.
Capping such fees is likely to see more workers migrate legitimately, ensuring they are protected by law and entitled to social security benefits, said Jackie Pollock, an adviser with the United Nations' International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Thailand has about three million migrant workers on its books but the UN migration agency (IOM) estimates there are at least two million more working illegally across the country.
Undocumented migrant workers are not only exempt from state benefits but at greater risk of being exploited or enslaved and less likely to speak out for fear of reprisals, activists say.
"In the fishing industry, for example, undocumented workers can be sold from one boat to the next," said Sa Saroeun of the Raks Thai Foundation, which works with Cambodian migrants in Thailand.
"No one will know, no one will be responsible."
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Thailand last year launched an overhaul of the registration process for migrant workers, granting them equal labour rights to local hires - including free healthcare and child allowances.
In the first phase of the revamp, the government aims to ensure two million legitimate migrant workers are registered afresh - a process that must be carried out by employers but paid for by workers earning about US$300 a month.
Yet migrants and campaigners told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Thailand last month that employers are inflating the registration costs - officially about US$220 - trapping many in abusive workplaces as they struggle to pay off their debts.