“Do not migrate without thinking twice and assessing the real situation. Because you might find yourself being exploited and working to exhaustion without getting a significant income. Compare your options and think that here you will always have your land and your family”

Nhek Toeu

Nhek Toeu’s story

When we reach Nhek Toeu’s farm after a long unpaved and dusty road, he is already waiting for us, sitting at the entrance of a house that he had left four years ago, when he decided to go work in Thailand.  He has now spent the two weeks since his return contemplating his land in this commune at the Chom Kachek village of the Battambang province, western Cambodia.

We introduce ourselves, set the camera, “shoot” the first question and immediately notice how easily words spill over. Nhek Toeu wants to talk. He wants to share his story. His experience is still too alive, too close in time. It left an indelible trace in him. Too strong and valuable to others to keep it inside.

Nhek Toeu is a young man of just 28 years old. At the age of 24 he decided to help his family get out of the acute poverty they lived in, so he gave his passport to a broker who helped him cross the border with Thailand and promised him a job in a paper production factory. Despite the deal, he had to survive for the first few months doing small and poorly paid tasks in a cassava plantation first and in a soy mill later. But finally, he signed a contract with the agreed company.

Nhek Toeu admits that “the work was not bad”, “normal” in his own words, because “it had positive things such as the health check-ups every three months and the fact that it was stable”. But he acknowledges that his labour rights were not totally respected, and, in the end, this breach made him decide to resign and come back to his country. “The problem”, he recalls, “was the overwork. We were expected to work up to 13-14 hours without any extra compensation”. And complaining was not an option, although bonuses were contemplated in the contract: “we were either not allowed or, when they decided to listen to us and promised to pay, we never received it”, Nhek Toeu regrets. The situation became even more complicated, as he thought that the factory may have agreed to pay for his overtime hours, but either the broker or the supervisor were putting this money into their pockets.

Migrants often complain of the vicious relationship that they are forced to stablish with brokers. Workers entrust their passports, contracts and also agreed wages and bonuses to these illegal intermediaries and even after having signed the contract and started working for a company, migrants remain “chained” to brokers in an eternal dependency relationship that make them vulnerable to scams, as they are too afraid to expose brokers’ malpractices.

After four years of what Nhek Toeu feels as “exploitation” and “a tough experience far from my expectations”, he made the decision to resign and return to Cambodia. His mother is an active member of the self-help groups that WeWorld-GVC supports in their village through the EU co-funded project MIG-RIGHT. His son shared his experience thanks to her willingness and now awareness of the importance to spread the word on safe and fair working conditions for Cambodian migrants.

His plans are now to work his family’s land and turn the farm into a productive income generating source. He admits he is not planning to ever become a migrant again; except to bring his Cambodian pregnant wife back, whom he met while in Thailand and who will return after their child’s birth.

This is Nhek Toeu’s story. There is not much else to say, we think. But he has a last message, the lesson learnt and his advice to other young Cambodian men of his same generation: “Do not migrate without thinking twice and assessing the real situation. Because you might find yourself being exploited and working to exhaustion without getting a significant income. Compare your options and think that here you will always have your land and your family”.

Read more about private recruitment agencies and brokering practices