Skilled labour shortage forces the recruitment of foreign workers, a move not favoured by locals but one that is likely good for the nation
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There is an ongoing debate whether Cambodia should accept or hire more foreign workers. While its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines face a similar dilemma, the Cambodian case is particularly interesting as foreign workers form a significant two percent of the country’s 16 million population.
In 2018, nearly 120,000 foreigners applied for work permits but local authorities estimate that the number is much higher, noting that many foreigners neglected or intentionally did not apply for permits.
Observers say the presence of foreign workers is critical to Cambodia’s economy. Others claim that it is not good to rely too much on foreign talent, and that hiring foreign workers means fewer job opportunities for locals as this causes them to look for jobs overseas.
According to industry players, the nation is still at a stage where it needs to tap foreign talent to advance economically.
Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), says there is no legal barrier to such hiring practice.
“Our law allows for the recruitment of foreign workers in the absence of skilled workers,” he states.
The current crop of foreign workers are apparently performing well and contributing to the development of the country.
Monika says that foreign technicians and skilled individuals are employed by the garment industry.
“We need them at this moment to fill the skills gap. So far, we do not have any problems with foreign workers,” he says.
Likewise, Cambodian Microfinance Association (MFA) chairman Kea Borann says a highly skilled and technical workforce is not easily available.
“Hiring foreign workers is not unique to Cambodia. In fact, we also export workers to other countries,” he adds.
Foreign workers’ contribution
Many foreign nationals occupy top positions in garment and related industries. It is not surprising to see Filipino, Chinese, Japanese or Korean managers in garment or footwear companies in the Kingdom.
Similarly, Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans occupy many top positions in real estate, media, construction, manufacturing, accounting and legal firms.
Thousands of English language and international schools across the country are also staffed by foreigners.
Christopher Montero, Philippine ambassador to Cambodia, says that Cambodian government officials are grateful for the presence of Filipinos.
“The officials told me that Filipinos contribute a lot in many ways without causing any problem to the Kingdom,” Montero says, adding that quite a number of Filipinos are employed as teachers, doctors, architects, engineers, accountants and managers in local and international firms.
Chinese labour influx meets resistance
The bulk of foreign workers in Cambodia come from China. Current government estimates put the figure at 210,000, with many working in the construction, real estate and garment sectors.
Often, Chinese property developers and construction companies with projects in Cambodia bring their own people to work here.
However, there has been a pushback against Chinese labour recently. Some feel that Chinese nationals are taking away jobs that are supposed to be filled by locals.
Sok Kin, president of Builders and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia reportedly said he feared the situation would lead to Cambodians seeking employment abroad.
But Borann says it is common for foreign investors to bring in foreign workers, echoing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s message last month.
“What I see is a loss of opportunity for locals when jobs are given to Chinese nationals. (As) they are Chinese investors, they would hire a Chinese workforce,” Hun Sen was quoted as saying.
More Cambodians working abroad
Low wages and lack of job opportunities have resulted in many Cambodians seeking work abroad. In the first half of 2018, there were 1.84 million Cambodians working in countries like Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The figure represents a slight increase from the same period in 2017 when 1.82 million Cambodians were recorded.
Foreign labour will drop over time
Both Borann and Monika agree that Cambodia’s reliance on foreign workers will reduce over time. Monika is confident that in future, Cambodia would easily localise its workforce, in reference to the development of the National Technical Training Institute (NTTI) and support from the government.
“We will be able to build our own workforce and gradually replace expatriates,” he says.
Borann says the government will have a bigger role in cutting down Cambodia’s reliance on foreign labour.
“The government can actually implement strategies to develop the right skill set and labour force to feed the market,” he adds.