Eng Mech is on the verge of tears as she recalls the misfortunes that have befallen her son and landed her with a huge debt from his company.
“I have no money to pay them. I am so poor,” she said, with desperation etched across her face.
Oem Poula, her 30-year-old son, is currently in Japan, but she has no idea where.
He absconded from the company where he worked as a so-called trainee in May last year. Now the firm wants his mother to pay a penalty fee for his disappearance.
Mr Poula travelled to Japan in the hope of earning a decent salary to support his family back in Cambodia. But things didn’t work out as he hoped.
PITT Cambodia Ltd says the 54-year-old mother from Prek Pdao village in Prey Veng province’s Kampong Trabaek district must pay the firm $15,000.
Representatives of the company have filed a complaint with Prey Veng provincial court, insisting Ms Mech must pay $10,000 as her son’s guarantor, plus $5,000 in compensation to his employers.
“My son was always one of the best students at his school. He tried to look for a job in Japan and the company told him he could earn a good salary there,” she said. “I hoped my son would get a good job and then come home. Now his company is suing me.”
According to a report from the company, Mr Poula absconded from work on May 2, 2016. He is thought to have gone to Tokyo.
“A co-worker took him to the train station and Mr Poula said he probably would not come back. His co-worker was concerned and informed the company,” the report said.
Japan has strict rules on migrant workers. To be accepted to the country, Cambodians are usually required to be taken on as “trainees”.
These trainees, of which there are 5,000 in the country, usually work in agriculture and construction.
Son Chomnab worked in Japan as a trainee for three years through PITT. He was a colleague of Mr Poula and remembers how the young man was struggling to survive on the income he earned there.
Before even getting to Japan, Mr Chomnab said each worker had to pay PITT $4,000 to access a job.
Mr Poula said he was promised a monthly salary of between $1,200 and $1,300, however that never transpired because he was only paid on the days where he could work.
“Mr Poula worked in road construction, so he didn’t have much work to do whenever there was heavy snow, because the company would not send workers out on those days,” Mr Chomnab said.
“If the workers couldn’t go out, they wouldn’t get paid. The money they earned was too little to afford living there.”
Mr Chomnab said Mr Poula was happy to do the work, but dissatisfied with his income. He had tried to challenge his employers on the issue, but without success.
This was likely what pushed him to abscond and look for another job, Mr Chomnab added.
According to documents from PITT submitted to the Labour Ministry, 11 of the company’s trainees in Japan disappeared from September 2015 to May 2016. All were construction workers.
Khun Sophal, a lawyer representing the company, said in a letter that Mr Poula’s mother had guaranteed to pay the firm $10,000 if her son failed to work hard, disobeyed company regulations or absconded.
But Ms Mech said it seemed as if the company had set out to cheat her from the start, because she is illiterate and was unaware she had entered into such an agreement.
She said the company gave her some documents to put her thumbprint on, but never read the contents to her, claiming it was simply to give permission for her son to work abroad.
“I thought my son was going to work at a factory with a regular salary plus overtime, but he was sent to be a construction worker, with no fixed salary and sometimes no pay at all when there was no work to do,” she said.
“Since he left until when he disappeared he was only able to send me $1,000. He told me he was so sad.”
Ms Mech added that one of her nephews had gone to Japan through the same company. He was employed at a factory, earned a good salary and returned home safely.
She said she only found out her son had gone missing when the company informed her. “When I heard the news I went into shock,” she said.
Prey Veng Adhoc coordinator Eang Kimly said the company should be trying to find its missing workers in Japan rather than filing legal complaints against their families.
“The company should look for people who are missing first,” she said, adding they would likely be facing difficulties since they were now living in the country illegally.
Ms Kimly said Cambodian authorities should also investigate the firm, since it is taking people to work in Japan as trainees, but their roles do not involve training.
Prey Veng provincial court has not yet set a date to hear the case against Ms Mech.
The mother hopes a lawyer from Adhoc will help her to find justice.
“I do not want to file any complaint,” she said. “I just want my son back with his family. If he comes home, I will never allow him to go and work abroad again.”