While law-abiding foreigners in Cambodia will undoubtedly follow the outlined procedure of getting a medical test for a work permit, even the best among them will begin to ask questions about the necessity of going through the entire process, writes Rama Ariadi.
There is nothing principally wrong about a sovereign state wanting to keep tabs on its workforces’ health. In fact, in the age of globalisation – where boundaries are increasingly becoming porous, if not dismantled altogether – communicable diseases are posing an increasing threat across Southeast Asia, whose baseline figures of health were never so great to begin with.
In fact, Cambodia had one of the most troubling figures when it comes to AIDS – with estimates reaching as high as two percent of the total population living with the condition in 1998. The government launched an initiative to curb the spread of HIV only in the early years of the second millennium.
Consider this additional fact – although Cambodia did experience an HIV epidemic in the 1990s, the outbreak came much earlier for the rest of the world. However, the numbers of reported cases exploded exponentially at the end of the 90s, before peaking at just under 10,000 fatalities in 2003, according to annual statistical comparison released by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Many will find the timing rather curious – 2003 is widely cited as the year where Cambodia began to experience its long-overdue economic boom. Expatriates flocked for a number of reasons – some to make the most of the opportunities that the Kingdom has to offer, while others came to live a proto-hipster, lawless bohemian lives that William Burroughs and his beatniks’ brethren enjoyed in Tangier, at the fraction of the cost.
With that in mind, and the successes of the government and NGO-led initiatives to reduce the prevalence of the cases in recent years, the government-mandated health check-ups for foreign workers in Cambodia seems to be completely justified.
While the whole idea sounds great in theory, the implementation of this initiative is a different story – a tale of complacency that if not urgently addressed, will render all the good achievement null and void.
The clinic at the Ministry of Labour’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety opens its doors at 8:00AM. “Foreigners to the left, Khmers to the right,” said a security guard, gesturing to a reception desk staffed by two nurses. After a hastily done weight and height check, registrants were then told to return to the reception desk to answer questions that are rather… irrelevant – including the colour of a registrant’s eye and chest circumference.
Whereas there are other processes that registrants had to do, this was where most of the ‘examination’ took place. In another room, some registrants were asked about their eyesight – except those who did not wear glasses. No tests were administered. Arguably the most dubious part of the entire examination process was the blood test. The amount of blood drawn was so minuscule that one will begin to wonder if anyone could get a complete serology panel based on it.
“This is why I don’t do it here,” said Carolina, an expatriate from South America who managed to circumvent the blood test by providing a medical certificate issued in Bogota, Colombia. “No one here has managed to tell me what the blood test was for.”
Agreeing to speak under an alias, she said the main problem is the lack of transparency. “There are so many loopholes that people can take advantage of. In fact, many of my friends have never ever paid this building a visit,” she said.
And she has a point – the majority of the four expatriates who were present for the medical check-up that time were first timers who did not know that these rules can easily be bent and are rarely enforced, despite the fact that the system has been around for a solid two decades.
While law-abiding foreigners will undoubtedly follow the outlined procedure, even the best among them will begin to ask questions about the necessity of going through the entire process – no matter how quick the process may be. If it’s a medical test for a work permit, then let it be a proper one instead of a formality.
Rama Ariadi is a feature writer with Khmer Times.