NEWS

Cambodians can’t wait for 2004

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Mai went against his wife’s wishes when he borrowed $500 to pay a broker who promised a lucrative job on a construction project in Greece for the 2004 Olympics. The 40-year-old Mai, a former beverage seller who gave only one name, was supposed to leave for Greece four months ago. Now he wonders if he will ever go. He is out of work, his wife has left him and he worries about how he will repay his debt. Mai is not alone. Some 6,000 young and middle-aged Cambodians applied for jobs offering as much as $4 an hour in Greece, and the 1,258 selected put up deposits of $500 each with a hiring company – a huge sum in a country where even the best-paid factory workers earn $45 a month. Now they wonder if the promised jobs – and their would-be employer – even exist. Many of them borrowed or sold valuables to pay the deposit on top of the $130 needed for a medical checkup and passports. A little-known company, Cambodian Consultant and Associates, said it hired the workers on behalf of J.R.N. International Corporation, based in Montreal, Canada. The Cambodian firm’s Chhim Tittha Vong said J.R.N. hired workers for an affiliated construction company called Este De to build a 72-kilometer (45-mile) highway for the Olympics. Paperwork, paperwork Officials for J.R.N. and the Cambodian recruiters say paperwork, bureaucracy and increased security measures following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States are delaying the Cambodians’ departure, originally scheduled for August. But the Greek office in charge of the Games said it knew nothing about Este De, J.R.N. or the hiring of Cambodians workers. Such a possibility has not been officially set forth and there is no such circumstance for such a possibility, Costas Cartalis, general secretary for the 2004 Games, told The Associated Press in Athens. However, it’s possible that Cartalis’s office may be unaware of J.R.N. if it obtained subcontracts from a larger company. J.R.N. and the recruiting firm have refused to divulge details of the contract. But even if a contract exists, the workers say they have been left in the lurch for too long. Excuses, excuses? When a letter signed by John Petris, identified as an executive at J.R.N., was posted last month to the recruiting firm to explain the reasons for the delay, it was met with sighs and catcalls from would-be workers who gather daily at the office. It’s another excuse, shouted one man. Meas Sareth, a 31-year-old truck driver jobless for five months, said he sold his father’s cow to pay interest on the loan for the deposit and was being ridiculed by friends and family members. Now I dare not even walk with my head up in the village because they are laughing at me, he said. Last week, about 100 of the workers demonstrated outside Cambodia’s Labor Ministry to demand their deposits back. An AP reporter spoke by telephone to a man who identified himself as J.R.N.’s John Petris. Speaking from Montreal, he said Este De has received a whole 500-page contract from Greek authorities to build a highway and Olympic villas. He refused to give details. He blamed initial delays on the failure of Cambodian authorities to quickly issue passports. He said the Sept. 11 attacks changed the situation dramatically as Greek authorities now must provide details on the Cambodian workers to European police and US authorities for security clearance. This is becoming really crazy. So if the Cambodian government had helped me to get these passports (earlier), nothing of this would have happened, Petris said. Contract under suspicion Cambodian officials now view the J.R.N. contract with suspicion. They are monitoring the massive labor deal very closely to ensure that the workers are not exploited, said Hou Vuthy, a deputy director at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Welfare. He said he would travel to Greece soon to investigate the case. He added that the government allowed Cambodia Consultant to recruit the laborers based on a contract the firm has with J.R.N, but has now blocked all but about 10 percent of the money from being transferred out of the country. Bonna, a 30-year-old unemployed construction worker, mortgaged his land for $1,000 to cover the deposit and other expenses. He figured he could make at least $10,000 during a year in Greece. I could use that money to upgrade my thatched house to concrete and help my relatives, said Bonna who – like the ex-beverage seller Mai – only gave one name. If the job doesn’t pan out, he said, it would be probably better for me to put a rope around my neck and hang myself. Mai is even worse off. He recalled how his wife chased him away from their home in the provinces. She said, ‘Why did you come back? Go away, go to Greece.’ Now I’m stuck. There is nothing clear except delay again and again. We’ve been tricked.