Agencies Put Full Maids Halt Into Effect

Labor Ministry said to be ‘powerless,’ as agencies regulate themselves

Labor Ministry said to be ‘powerless,’ as agencies regulate themselves

Despite having negotiated a loophole in a government ban on sending maids to Malaysia, the Association of Cambodian Re­cruit­ment Agencies (ACRA) claimed yesterday that its 13 members will immediately stop training and sending domestic workers abroad.

A human rights worker and an opposition lawmaker cautiously welcomed the news, but raised questions over the fact that it was the agencies—and not the Labor Ministry—that made the decision.

“From now, [there will be] no sending of maids to Malaysia,” said An Bunhak, ACRA president and director of Top Manpower re­cruitment agency, at a news conference in Phnom Penh.

The announcement comes af­ter ACRA and the Labor Minis­­try said they had negotiated an ex­emption to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban on sending maids to Ma­laysia on Monday, two days after the ban was signed.

However, Mr Bunhak said its 13 member agencies had voluntarily made the decision to stop sending maids without discussing it with the government.

“This is our own decision, we have to protect our reputation,” said Mr Bunhak, adding that negative attention from the media and from opposition politicians on the practices of recruitment agencies had led to the decision.

“I don’t want these things to be on the front of the newspaper,” he said via telephone later, adding, “We don’t want anyone to take political advantage.”

Human rights groups and opposition lawmakers were outraged when the Labor Ministry said that some 3,000 out of the approximately 7,000 maids that remain in pre-departure training centers in Cambodia could still be sent to Malaysia despite the ban because they had visas and signed contracts with employers.

The moratorium on Cambodian women traveling to work in Malaysia followed months of recurring reports of serious abuse and exploitation of maids by Cambodian recruitment agencies and by Malaysian employers.

Mr Bunhak said ACRA members would now switch their attention to other types of migrant work in Malaysia, such as factory labor. He said recruits in training centers would be offered the choice to leave freely and return home, offered employment in a Malaysian factory, a migrant labor job in Thailand, or be employed in Cambodia.

“The option that we want the maids to chose is to work in Malaysia, but in the factory,” he said, adding that member agencies would bear the costs of canceling the contracts with Malaysian employers and the expenses incurred during the training of recruits.

More than 30,000 Cambodian women currently remain in Malaysia and Mr Bunhak said the respective agencies and the Cambodian Embassy would follow their situation.

Jenna Holiday, an independent consultant who recently authored a USAID report on labor migration in Cambodia, said ACRA’s switch from sending maids to Malaysia to sending them to work in Malaysian factories would make little difference if the recruitment agencies remained unregulated. Such agencies would continue their practices of debt bondage, underage recruitment and illegal confinement in pre-departure training center, Ms Holiday said.

“The recruitment practices will also apply for work in factories” in Malaysia, she said, adding that inside Malaysia migrant workers in factories were only slightly less vulnerable than maids.

Migrant factory workers in Malaysia often had their passports taken, salaries withheld or were trafficked within the country to continued forced labor, she added.

Ministry of Labor officials, who had defended the loophole in the ban days earlier, declined to comment yesterday on ACRA’s announcement.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, welcomed ACRA’s decision, adding, “This is in accordance with the government [ban] order.”

“It’s not good to send women to work as domestic workers in Malaysia, where they face serious risks.”

SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who has long called for a full freeze on sending maids to Malaysia, said she was “relieved” to hear ACRA’s announcement, but added that “the pressure should be on” to ensure ACRA follows its promise.

Ms Sochua expressed exasperation at the fact that ACRA “called the shots” in terms of regulation of the country’s labor migration policies, as the Labor Ministry did little to regulate the sector, and had then undermined the prime minister’s ban.

“Where is the Ministry of Labor, who is the boss?” she asked. “Why is calling ACRA the shots?”

On Wednesday, interviews with recruits in a Phnom Penh recruitment agency, SKMM Investment Group Co Ltd, revealed that dozens of women and girls were being confined against their will in training centers and either forced to board flights to Malaysia, or required to pay back large sums of money before they could leave the center to return home.

Police raided the agency, which is an ACRA member, yesterday morning and freed 78 recruits, some of whom were as young as 15 years old.

Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, welcomed ACRA’s decision to stop sending maids, but he expressed skepticism at ACRA’s ability to self-regulate its members, unless the Labor Ministry enforced regulation of the migrant labor sector.

“It’s a question of law enforcement,” he said, adding that he was concerned over the fate of recruits still in the recruitment centers.

“It’s a big concern for us. I don’t know if they have another trick, like putting them to work in another factory in Cambodia” instead of freeing them, Mr Tola said.

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