International cooperation effort brings exploited Cambodian workers home from Saudi Arabia

November 12, 2014
UN-ACT

A group of villagers from rural Cambodia who were lured to Saudi Arabia by the promise of well-paid jobs in the oil industry, have been able to return home after a punishing ordeal that saw them being deceived and exploited. International cooperation from a variety of organizations and agencies played a critical role in their successful return.

The men, who come from a remote part of eastern Cambodia where poor communities survive on hard physical labour as farmers, learned about opportunities of better working conditions with good pay in Saudi Arabia.  Their journey to the oil-rich nation was organized by a broker, with whom they agreed on salary levels and working conditions. The men left their village in December 2013, heading first by bus to Thailand and onwards by plane to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Two more Cambodian workers joined the group through the same broker in January 2014.

Upon their arrival in Riyadh, the men were immediately put to work on a construction site, instead of in the oil industry. Furthermore, their passports were confiscated and they were informed that their salaries would be only one third of the amount they had been promised. After realizing that they had been deceived, the men called the broker in Phnom Penh to complain. The latter urged them to be patient and to continue to work in their current workplace for a few months, until the recruitment company could find them the jobs they wanted. The men followed this advice and continued to work for another month while awaiting news from the broker. When they did not hear from him for several weeks, seven of the men asked the employer to return their passports to them and to send them back home. In response, the employer demanded that each worker pay US$2,500 in compensation to cover their recruitment, transportation and housing expenses.

The workers then reported their situation to the local police, who requested a meeting with their employer. The employer refused to attend the meeting and upon hearing about the complaint lodged by the Cambodian workers, he separated the group and sent them to work in different locations. Two of the workers were sent to an isolated construction site in the desert, where they suffered abuse including a grueling workload, insufficient food, and extremely high temperatures.

One of the workers was able to call his family to let them know about the bad situation the Cambodian workers found themselves in. His family further informed the families of the other victims and reported the problem to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia (MoFAIC).

The men then managed to escape from their workplace. As there is no Cambodian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, they sought help from the Royal Thai Embassy.

In the meantime, the Cambodian authorities approached the relevant Thai authorities to seek their cooperation in resolving the problem. With the support of UN-ACT, the Cambodia COMMIT Task Force contacted their Thai COMMIT counterparts while MoFAIC approached the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs then met with the Thai COMMIT Taskforce and Cambodia Embassy representatives in Bangkok to discuss ways to assist the victims.

Following interventions made by the Royal Thai Embassy in Riyadh and due to the complaint that had been filed by the Cambodian workers with the local Saudi police, the employer was ordered to pay two months of salary (2,400 Saudi Riyal, or approx. 600 USD) to each worker in addition to the cost of their return flights to Bangkok. The men were eventually repatriated on 23 September 2014, after receiving shelter and assistance for over one month at the Royal Thai Embassy’s compound in Riyadh.

The Cambodian victims are grateful for the support they received from the different agencies that facilitated their repatriation. “I am very thankful to all the people in and outside Cambodia who helped us to return home,” said one of the victims. “In particular, we are grateful to the Royal Thai Embassy in Riyadh, for giving us a safe place to stay and covering our costs while we waited for our case to be resolved.”

Now that the workers are safely back home, the Cambodian police are investigating their case.  The workers hope that the broker who deceived them will be punished. “We think that people should be warned about the risks of going to work abroad, and that the Government should inform us about safe ways to find work abroad,” they said.

The men also hope that other workers who go abroad to improve their livelihoods are able to receive assistance if they face similar problems. “To protect Cambodian workers, the Cambodian Government should have special agreements with other countries so that they can intervene quickly to solve problems involving Cambodians who face abuse at their destination,” said the returnees.

“Cambodian workers abroad must be able to receive help and support when in need, whether from the government or non-government organizations,” they added.

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