ASEAN Beat | Economy | Southeast Asia

Cambodia Risks Being Left Behind by Workplace Automation

The Cambodian government has done little to prepare its population for an epochal economic shift.

Cambodia Risks Being Left Behind by Workplace Automation
Credit: Flickr/Global Partnership for Education – GPE

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank on the impacts of automation in Cambodia can be read in two ways. It found that by 2030 some 12 percent of Cambodia’s garment workers face displacement because of automation, in addition to about 3 percent of jobs in the tourism sector.

That’s not so bad: far worse projections were made in a 2016 report by the International Labor Organization, which asserted that 57 percent of all jobs in Cambodia are at risk from automation, second only to Vietnam (70 percent) of the five Southeast Asian states surveyed. And Cambodia had the most “wage-earners” at risk.

However, the optimist can also find something to clutch onto. According to the ADB report, although automation will cut employment in Cambodia’s garment manufacturing sector by 12 percent by 2030, afterwards it will boost job creation by 51 percent. Same for the tourism sector, with technology set to produce a 5 percent increase in jobs after 2030.

When one is asked whether the glass is half empty or half full, the rejoinder ought to be: It depends on what’s being poured into it. And what automation is pouring into the equation is a fundamental shift in who will benefit, a widening of existing inequalities, and an 11th-hour dash to “upskill” a nation’s workforce, a race in which Cambodia currently appears to be dawdling along.

Automation has had its fair share of negative publicity. And there’s an assumption that it’s a one-way path, of robots simply taking jobs. As the ADB report makes clear, it will also create jobs – but the jobs being lost because of technology won’t be the same jobs created by it. Put differently, the garment workers laid off because of automation won’t be the same individuals who’ll benefit from the newly-created jobs. Why? Because automation will demand a different workforce, from low-end assembly to high-end design and administration.

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Cambodia’s problem is that it is increasingly not preparing its citizenry for this shift. Like every country, its education sector has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools temporarily closed in March 2020, opening again only in early September. They were again closed on November 30 after another wave, and again in March after the most deadly wave began on February 20, which has now seen infection climb to 5218, and 36 deaths, as of April 15. By comparison, Cambodia recorded only 366 cases over the whole of 2020.

But the pandemic only shed light on existing problems. Cambodia’s education standards aren’t necessarily stalling, but they are considerably slowing. Data from the United Nations Development Program shows that major progress in the 2000s slowed over the past decade.

The expected years of schooling rose from 6.7 years in 1990 to 7.6 years in 2000 – a 13.4 percent increase – but then rose to 10.7 years by 2010, a 40 percent increase between 2000-2010. However, between 2010 and 2019, it only went up to 11.5 years, a 7.4 percent increase. This is a same trend that plays out in other metrics of education. Moreover, in some areas progress is stalling. In 2010, 13 percent of the school-age population was enrolled in tertiary education. It was the same percentage in 2019.

It’s a more dire picture when Cambodia’s education is compared to its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors. According to the U.N.’s latest estimates, the pupil-to-teacher ratio in primary schools was 17 in Thailand, 20 in Vietnam, 22 in Laos, and 24 in Myanmar. In Cambodia, it was 42. According to the U.N., around 49 percent of Thais are enrolled in university education, as are 29 percent of Vietnamese and 19 percent of Burmese. As we saw, it was just 13 percent in Cambodia.

The most obvious reason is the most straightforward. Between 2013 and 2018, Cambodia spent an average of just 2.2 percent of GDP on education. Vietnam spent 4.2 percent and Thailand 4.1 percent; even Laos spent more (2.9 percent). However, that is overly simplistic and throwing more money at the problem doesn’t always help. After all, teachers are paid more in Cambodia than Vietnam. The minimum wage for teachers in Vietnam, at least in 2017, was between $113 and $165 per month depending on their location. The same year, the minimum wage for Cambodia teachers was raised to $230 per month. Since then, Cambodia has increased teachers’ wages to between $300 and $318 per month.

Instead, there are major structural problems that must be dealt with. Education ministers have attempted to deal with institutional cheating in high schools, but only with limited success. Dozens of university professors told me during the five years I lived in Phnom Penh that they were directly instructed not to fail students, since those students were paying. Many of the brightest students will go onto study at foreign universities, the poorer of the students helped by numerous bursaries. From anecdotal evidence, the cheapest university course costs around $500 per year, a prohibitive investment given that annual GDP per capita is $1,643.

Another problem is the widening gap between parents who can and cannot afford to pay for their children’s education. According to reported data from Cambodia’s education ministry, for the academic year 2018 to 2019, some 218,357 students were enrolled in 1,222 private schools nationwide, from primary to secondary education. For the same year, 3,300 public schools enrolled 3,189,172 students. Put differently, 6.4 percent of all students were privately educated. And this is an urban phenomenon. Of the 218,000-odd privately-educated students, only 35,511 (17 percent) resided in rural areas.

Kimkong Heng, a researcher, has done some of the important math. In an article published last year, he estimated that over the past decade, academics at Malaysian universities have published 289,231 publications indexed in Scopus, the world’s largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature. Thailand had 152,208 publications and Vietnam 55,639. But Cambodia had just 3,708.

As Heng also noted, on the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report, Cambodia’s innovation capacity dropped from 96th out of 140 countries in 2018 to 102nd out of 141 in 2019. “Expenditures on research and development (R&D) has decreased, while the score for the country’s research institutions prominence was 117th out of 141,” he wrote. “Overall, the ranking score for Cambodia’s research and development was 121st out of 141, whereas Thailand’s was 56th and Vietnam 72nd.”

None of this makes for sanguinity – and for the Cambodian government it ought to compel some urgency.