The Cambodian government is planning to open a new consulate in Songkhla, but its decision to prioritize increasing the number of consulates over reducing passport fees has raised concerns among Cambodian workers abroad, who are seeking affordable passport renewal options for easier access to essential services.
A press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia said “At the request of Hun Manet, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin will take with utmost consideration Cambodia's proposal for better immigration procedures and border facilitation, and expedite the process of establishing a Consulate General of Cambodia in Songkhla Province to expand consular assistance to Cambodian people working and residing in the southern part of Thailand.”
However, concerns have been raised that the government is not doing more to streamline access to public services. Prak Pheaktra, a 39-year-old worker based in Chonburi Province, said that making it more convenient for individuals to receive essential services should be a priority.
“Currently, the government is likely to favour agencies or brokers, forcing workers to spend more than the government-set prices,” he stated.
In comparing the wages and living costs of Cambodian and Thai workers, Pheaktra urged the government to reduce passport fees in line with neighbouring countries. He noted it is crucial to make these fees affordable as lowering passport costs would not only benefit individuals financially but could also contribute to a decrease in illegal labour immigration.
In Thailand, he said workers often have to rely on agents or brokers due to the complexity and time constraints involved in preparing their own documents for legal employment, which increases the financial burden on workers.
“In Thailand, workers are not facilitated to prepare their own documentation. And employers often do not have enough time to do the work on documents themselves, so hiring a broker would increase costs and becomes another burden on us,” he added.
Pheaktra himself once spent 12,000 baht to renew his documents. He said the price is up to the broker so he tried to find the cheapest one. According to the prices set by the state, the total fee for a one-year work permit, pink card, health insurance, and visa comes to about 7,000 baht, but brokers often charge significantly higher amounts, ranging from 12,000 baht to 40,000 baht, depending on the company.
Pheaktra urged the government to really do something to help workers instead of just pretending to help for the sake of their image. He also said that workers shouldn't be treated badly for their political beliefs and should be treated fairly no matter what they believe.
“If the government really cares, please eliminate the inaction of officials and stop doing something that is just good for their public image. On the other hand, if workers are not willing to join the ruling party, do not threaten or accuse the opposition,” said Pheaktra.
Meanwhile, Moeun Tola, Executive Director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said that the new consulate in Songkhla will potentially benefit Cambodian workers in the area. Many Cambodian workers are employed in various sectors such as construction, seafood processing, and fishery. Tola sees the opening of a new consulate as a positive step, bringing public services closer to the workers and ultimately saving them time and transportation costs.
Concerns were voiced, however, about the performance of the embassy and consulate. Workers lacked support from the labour attaché. Tola said the authorities should prioritise public services over politics and said that he is concerned about pressure on workers tied to opposition parties or NGOs.
“No matter how many consulates that are established, if the officials still work like this, it’s useless and wastes a lot of government money. Also, it might bother the workers who are going to work abroad,” said Tola.
Tola strongly emphasized the importance of establishing consulates that actively engage in promoting job markets and attracting businesses to Cambodia. He called for a shift in approach, suggesting that consulates prioritize assisting workers and facilitating their access to good public services.
Moreover, Tola hoped that the future new consulate would be accessible to all Cambodian people, irrespective of their origin. He stressed the need for inclusivity, urging the government not to restrict the consulate's services based on people's locations.
“I hope the new consulate welcome people from anywhere, not only for those who live in Songkhla or the southern part of Thailand,” Tola added.
According to CENTRAL, there are about 2.7 million Cambodian workers in Thailand. More than 40% of them are undocumented. This used to be only about 20%, but after the Covid-19 pandemic the number of undocumented workers increased. But according to a report from the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, Thailand, with the largest number of Cambodian workers, has only 1.2 million.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Sokha last month instructed experts to explore cutting passport fees for citizens. Cambodia currently has some of the highest passport fees in ASEAN, a concern that needs addressing. However, as of now, there has been no progress on reducing them. Spokesperson Touch Sokhak emphasized that the matter is still in the study phase, and a final decision has not been made. "We are studying it, considering various factors. It's not decided yet," Sokhak stated.
Passport renewal service starts in South Korea before Thailand
Secretary of State and Spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training Un Kata said that the establishment of the Consulate General is to assist the Cambodian people who are living, studying and working in Songkhla and the southern provinces and to facilitate intervention on various issues and bring services closer to them. Regarding the timeline for the consulate's establishment, he noted "The procedure to establish a representative office is the responsibility of the two countries' Ministries of Foreign Affairs."
Kata said that the reason that the government decided to start a service in South Korea before Thailand was because old passports of Cambodian citizens are no longer valid. Therefore the government allows officials from the General Department of Identification to be stationed at embassies to prepare new passports valid for 10 years. Cambodian workers will thus be spared work disruption and save time from not having to fly back home.
“By the way, in Thailand, the government has a mechanism for Cambodian workers to receive services at the Cambodian-Thai border, such as at Koh Kong, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey,” he mentioned.
Related to restricting consulate services based on location, the government responded that they are still in the early stages of considering this and taking a step-by-step approach to the matter.
However, preparations are underway over legal documentation for Cambodian workers seeking employment in Thailand. The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and the Ministry of Interior are collaborating to prepare the necessary documents, including the Overseas Cambodian Worker Card (OCWC) and passport/travel documents for Cambodian workers (TD). These services will be accessible through the One Window Service Offices (OWSOs) situated in Cambodian border provinces such as Battambang and Banteay Meanchey.