Migrant workers struggling to sign up to vote

Op-Ed: Phnom Penh Post

Migrant workers struggling to sign up to vote

Thu, 26 October 2017

There are few things more important to 29-year-old Yan Muon than voting.

An official processes an identification card at a voter registration office in Phnom Penh in September. Pha Lina

An official processes an identification card at a voter registration office in Phnom Penh in September. Pha Lina

Even though the maths student traded his studies in Cambodia for an electronics factory in Malaysia three years ago in hopes of earning more money, he always planned to return to vote.

Unfortunately, it has been “difficult for me”, Muon said in an interview two weeks ago. “My company always rejects my request [for time off] from one week to another.”

Muon is one of an estimated 1.5 million migrant workers living and working outside Cambodia who must return to the Kingdom to register to vote in next year’s crucial national election. Yet with two weeks left in the registration period, nearly three-quarters of the eligible voters that the National Election Commission was hoping to register have yet to sign up, according to numbers released by the body yesterday.

In interviews with five migrant workers over the past two weeks, none said they were able to return to Cambodia to register.

Many said the biggest challenge is getting time off work. Others said they could not afford the trip. Some cited political apathy.

Chem Phany, a 24-year-old Cambodian working at a factory in Thailand that produces windows and doors, said he wants to vote, but needs at least one week to travel to his hometown in Takeo province.

“My employers will not allow me to get a week’s leave,” he said. “At the same time, I need to spend $130 round trip and to have food to eat. So I can’t afford that.”

So Phany, a garment worker who has been living in Malaysia for 10 years, said her employer also refused to give her time off.

“I wish the government can offer another option, perhaps for us to organise a voting pool at the embassy, so I don’t need to take much time to vote and I can choose a leader for my country,” she said.

Others, like Sim Sarunn, a 26-year-old migrant working at a fruit-processing factory in Japan, were discouraged by the imminent dissolution of the opposition CNRP.

“I would feel regret for [missing] the next election if the opposition party was still there and different parties were competing with each other, but the ruling party now competes alone,” Sarunn said. “So I’m not interested in coming to vote. Even if I do, there’s nothing I can change.”

For local election monitor Comfrel, this is the outcome they feared.

“This is a real difficulty, a real challenge,” said Yoeurng Sotheara, Comfrel’s legal and monitoring officer.

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