Cambodia‘s Invisible Labor Force

Cambodia‘s Invisible Labor Force

Human trafficking is one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century. It is a persistent violation of the rights and lives of children, men and women. We live in a globalized world that facilitates the movement of goods, information and people across borders. Globalization can significantly affect development and contribute to poverty reduction. Many Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia are, however, at the bottom of the world’s supply chains for garments, food and labor. The high demand for goods and cheap labor, coupled with widespread poverty, provide a fertile ground for exploitative labor conditions. Globalization is arguably one of the greatest forces behind the emergence of large scale migration and trafficking patterns (Smit, 2004). The Asia-Pacific Region is home to millions of migrants, and numbers are expected to continue to increase. This paper will focus specifically on Cambodia. As one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, Cambodia experiences significant amounts of both cross-border and internal migration and trafficking. It is a country of origin, transit and destination. For the purpose of this analysis, the focus will be on Cambodia as a site of origin.

It is important to note that there is no single narrative to describe trafficking experiences, as deceit and exploitation can occur before, during and/or after the process of migration. Trafficking is a highly complex phenomenon that denies any simplified explanations. The following chapter will therefore clarify the concept of trafficking and its intersections with other concepts such as forced labor or migration. Human trafficking can, for example, be found in cases of forced labor. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) (2012), 11.7 million forced laborers were in the Asia-Pacific Region in 2012, some, or even many of whom were trafficked. Since trafficking occurs within the greater context of global migration and labor patterns, it is helpful to address the issue from a human rights, specifically migrant and labor rights, perspective. Th is paper will therefore take a rights based approach.

Human trafficking occurs within the context of labor migration. The Mekong Migration Network estimates that the Greater Mekong Subregion (Cambodia, Lao, Th ailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Yunnan Province in China) is home to about 3-5 million migrants (Mekong Migration Network, 2009). Migration in and of itself is not necessarily negative. It becomes so when unsafe labor migration practices, which are especially common in the Greater Mekong Subregion, put migrants at risk of abuse and exploitation. The dramatic rise of labor migration from Cambodia is cause for grave concern. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of registered migrants increased by 272 percent, with 53,160 migrants registered in 2009-2010 alone (The Asia Foundation, 2013). As the majority of migrants leave Cambodia through irregular channels, the actual number of Cambodian labor migrants is estimated to be much higher. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2014) reported that over 225,000 Cambodian migrants fled Thailand in 2014, following the military junta‘s crackdown on illegal migrants. Aside from the number of repatriations and persons seeking protective services, there are no uniform attempts to estimate the amount of persons trafficked from Cambodia.

Many international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Cambodia to prevent trafficking, protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Amongst the anti-trafficking community it is widely recognized that trafficking arises during processes of migration. In the past years anti-trafficking programs have incorporated this knowledge. Safe migration initiatives have taken center stage in anti-trafficking efforts. Numerous NGOs have offered training, information leaflets and hotlines to future migrants and Cambodians working abroad. This begs the question whether safe migration approaches have been effective in curtailing trafficking. The following chapters will shed light on what kind of safe migration measures have been taken in Cambodia, their
effectiveness and what must be improved to ensure the protection of vulnerable migrants.

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