The government lifted a 2011 ban on sending Cambodian maids to Malaysia in January, according to a directive Prime Minister Hun Sen signed late last year, contradicting months of government denials.
The prime minister imposed the ban amid mounting reports that the maids were being physically and financially abused by both the local recruitment agencies sending them abroad and the households with which they were placed. Cambodia and Malaysia agreed in principle to lift the ban in late 2015, but said they needed to work out the details of a new plan with stronger measures to keep the women safe.
Despite Malaysian media reports this year that the ban was finally over, Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour has been insisting that it was still in place. Just last month, he said: “We have nearly reached the final process to reopen the market.”
However, according to a directive signed by Mr. Hun Sen on December 29, and obtained on Wednesday by the Daily, that market has officially been open since the start of the year.
The “Government Directive on Lifting the Ban on Sending Maids to Malaysia” says: “[The government would like to inform the ministries, institutions, authorities and recruitment agencies that the government allows the practice of recruiting, training, managing and sending workers of both genders, including general workers and maids, to work in Malaysia starting 1 January 2017 onward.”
Mr. Sour did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Neither Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng nor the ministry’s labor department director, Seng Sakada, could be reached.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he was unaware of the prime minister’s December 29 directive and referred all questions about the ban to Mr. Sour.
The Labor Ministry has yet to release any details of the plan it has been working on with Malaysia to keep Cambodian maids safe. Cambodian labor rights groups are skeptical of the government’s ability to reform the industry given the family ties some recruitment agencies have with senior officials.
Moeun Tola, director of the Cambodian labor rights group Central, said the government’s failure to publicize the prime minister’s directive was another sign of the lack of transparency around the lifting of the ban.
“I think Cambodia is not ready for it yet, since I have not seen much the government has been doing to improve the protection of its workers,” he said.
Joseph Arnhold, spokesman for the Chab Dai Coalition, an NGO that combats human trafficking, said his group was concerned about Cambodia’s recent efforts to strike new migrant labor deals with several countries, including Malaysia.
“If the past has any prediction for the future, there hasn’t been the best record of protection for Cambodian nationals as they seek work abroad, and there hasn’t been much of an improvement from the government to focus on Cambodian nationals’ rights in Malaysia,” he said. “We would like to see the government address these concerns and ensure proper safety nets and agreements are in place.”
Pin Vireak, executive director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, said he had received the directive, but not the new plan itself. He said the association’s members had yet to send any maids to Malaysia since January and that they were drafting a letter to ask the ministry for details about the new procedures.
Just last week, the Labor Ministry released an updated list of the 77 recruitment agencies licensed to send Cambodian workers to three countries, including Malaysia.
In an interview on Tuesday, Sok Chanpheakdey, owner of Philimore Cambodia, said the ministry had recently reminded interested agencies to submit their applications. He said his agency was in the process of doing so.
Mr. Chanpheakdey said the foreign affairs and interior ministries were also involved, the former by noting the date that workers leave Cambodia and the latter by issuing them
Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry could not be reached and did not reply to a request for comment.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he had no idea if any Cambodians had left for Malaysia to work as maids since January because the ministry did not keep track of why people apply for passports.
Despite the ban, unknown numbers of women have continued to leave for Malaysia to work as maids, often returning with tales of abuse. In late December, around the time Mr. Hun Sen lifted the ban, the government repatriated a Cambodian maid from Malaysia who said she had been raped by her employer.
Earlier that year, two women who had recently returned from working as maids in Malaysia said they saw several other women regularly beaten by guards at the detention center they were sent to after fleeing their employers. They said some of the women died, though Malaysia, after investigating the claims, said it found only one death and attributed it to an unspecified illness.