Despite threats from the Cambodian government, who claim he is damaging the country’s image, 39-year-old Prak Pheaktra, a Cambodian migrant worker-turned-advocate, is striving to help other Cambodian workers facing unfair treatment from their employers.
Prak Pheaktra attended the event ‘Open the Sky and See the World: Listen to the Voice of Migrant Workers,’ organized by the Labor Quality of Life Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) on January 23, 2019.
In 2000, Pheaktra, who is from Pusat province, came to Thailand to find work. His family was facing financial difficulties after the death of his mother, and his father could no longer afford to send him to school. Chasing the promise of better pay and less strenuous work, he decided to come to Thailand.
Pheaktra started out working as a construction worker in Don Mueang, but he later faced exploitation and abuse from his employer. Once, his employer withheld wages and threatened legal action against him. Having experienced firsthand the unfair treatment and exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand, he became an advocate so he could help other workers to get fair treatment in the workplace.
Pheaktra's dedication led him to become a Khmer-Thai interpreter for the Ministry of Labour of Thailand in 2018-2019, where he delved into studying Thai law. After completed his ministry contract, he joined the Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN) in 2019-2020 as a Complaints Receiving Officer.
Having worked with both government and civil society, he is now working as an independent advocate for migrant workers. He offers assistance to workers dealing with wage issues, pressures from employers, sexual harassment, and other threats, and has never asked them for a fee. He also uses social media to educate workers on how to legally live and work in Thailand and warn them of exploitation by brokers. He works with NGOs as part of research projects, including one on child exploitation in Phuket and another on labour abuses faced by fishing boat workers.
However, his advocacy has attracted criticisms and threats, including from Cambodian officials, who claim he could damage the Cambodian government’s public image. This February, when he assisted 10 Cambodian workers in Samut Prakan whose employer wasn’t paying them, he faced some questions from the chief of the Labour Attaché Office at the Cambodian Embassy. When he was in Rayong working on another case, he was asked if he knew that what he was doing could affect the public image of the Cambodian government and threatened with having his passport revoked.
“The chief of the Labour Attaché Office threatened to revoke my passport if I continued to engage in activities that negatively impact the public image of the Cambodian government. I said, you can block my passport if you think what I am doing is really wrong. I’m not afraid,” Pheaktra said.
He has also faced threats from Thai officials, who he observed can be biased in favour of employers and accuse him of putting excessive trust in the workers. He gave an example of a particular case he worked on where an inaccurate resolution led to blame being unfairly placed on the worker.
He suggested the need for greater accuracy within the Ministry of Labour's processes and expressed frustration at being accused of trusting workers too much. He’s urging a more balanced approach to better serve the rights and interests of migrant workers.
Despite the threats he faces, Phaektra persists. "I love what I'm doing right now, and I will continue to help Cambodian workers no matter what," he said.
Those who have worked with Phaektra described him as kind and dedicated. Prum Somnang, a Cambodian worker at a plastic bag factory, was assisted by Phaektra after being abruptly dismissed by her Thai employer citing lack of work. Somnang had worked there for 10 years and was laid off along with 40 other workers. Her employer wanted to sue her, she said, because she started a protest against the layoff. At the same time, her visa was expiring in 7 days and she needed to fine a new job within the week. Her friend advised her to seek help from Pheatra.
"He's very kind. He helped me get money back from the employer and even assisted me in finding a new job before my visa expired," Somnang said.
Meanwhile, Loeng Sophon, a project officer with the labour rights group Centre for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), has known Phaektra through social media since 2016.
He described Pheaktra as an honest and quietly dedicated individual who consistently supports abused workers. He also noted Phaektra’s efforts in educating workers about Thai labour laws and how to obtain documents like visas and work permits, as well as informing them when there are changes in the law.
“Pheaktra's life may not be affluent but he’s unwaveringly committed to helping Cambodian workers, citing a shared patriotism and the desire to prevent other nationals from mistreating Cambodian workers,” Sophon said.
Pheaktra said that one key concern about the lives of migrant workers in Thailand is the risk of falling victim to scams orchestrated by middlemen or company representatives when filing documents. Pheaktra emphasized the need for workers to take charge of their documentation to prevent such scams.
Looking ahead, Pheaktra expressed a commitment to continue social work aimed at assisting migrant workers. Despite the presence of numerous NGOs and institutions offering help, some workers hesitate to seek assistance directly due to concerns about influential individuals associated with these organizations. Pheaktra sees himself as an advocate for migrant workers, standing by their side and addressing their problems.