Six recruitment agencies selected for a pilot program to send Cambodian maids to Hong Kong include two companies with family ties to top government officials that also participated in a similar venture with Singapore that soon became mired in controversy.
One of them has also had a number of complaints filed against it claiming labor abuse.
The Labor Ministry identified the six agencies at a workshop it hosted in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to allay fears about the deal it struck with Hong Kong in April to start sending domestic workers there.
Almost as soon as the deal was announced, rights groups raised concerns that it might go the way of a similar deal Hong Kong made with Burma in 2014 that quickly collapsed under the weight of language barriers and mounting fears the women were endangered.
The six agencies are Top Manpower, Anny Rita Best Manpower, Elite Manpower, Sok Leap Metrey, Ung Rithy Group and Win Win Manpower.
At least two of them are linked to top officials with direct control over immigration and labor issues. Sok Leap is owned by Seng Toussita, the daughter of Seng Sakada, director of the Labor Ministry’s labor department. Ung Seang Rithy, the sister of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department director, Sok Phal, heads the Ung Rithy Group.
At the workshop, the ministry’s deputy labor department director, Nguy Rith, said they were selected because of their experience sending workers overseas and for “not having any issues.”
Both Sok Leap and Ung Rithy, however, were among three companies the government chose to send maids to Singapore for a 2013 pilot program.
That program never attracted the 400 workers for which it aimed, however, after several women returned with claims of having their passports confiscated, and of being overworked and underfed. Several years ago, some NGOs also filed complaints with the government against the Ung Rithy Group on behalf of women who returned from Malaysia claiming debt bondage, forced confinement and being recruited while underage. No one was ever prosecuted over the claims, which the agency denied.
The government is touting Hong Kong as a far safer destination for maids than Malaysia or even Singapore, as foreign maids enjoy the same labor rights as locals, with guaranteed days off, generous maternity leave, mandatory health insurance and even the right to unionize.
“It’s the freedom city, the most [economic] freedom…in the world,” said Simon Liu, chairman of the Cambodian Human Resources Development Association of Hong Kong, which will represent Cambodia’s Labor Ministry in the city for the pilot.
“Don’t worry. One country, two systems,” Mr. Liu said, repeating Beijing’s policy to preserve Hong Kong’s economic and social freedoms.
There is still some confusion over when the first maids are likely to arrive. Mr. Rith said it could be as early as next month.
Mr. Liu conceded that fears of China and bad memories of Malaysia, which until recently was off limits to Cambodian maids because of several cases of abuse there, have dampened interest in Hong Kong. But he expected the first few maids to arrive by October.
An Bunhak, president of the Manpower Association of Cambodia, said he expected to see the first maids arrive in November or December, and to have up to 200 in Hong Kong by the end of this year. Mr. Bunhak, who also runs Top Manpower, said they were aiming to have 2,000 maids in Hong Kong within a year.
But Mr. Rith said it will all depend on demand, and whether Hong Kong families will want the maids Cambodia has to offer.
“Right now Hong Kong has a big demand,” he said after the workshop. “It’s a matter of whether we can send over workers to fill that demand, because their training and standards are high, so we need to work on meeting that standard.”
As for the spotty records of some of the recruitment agencies selected for the pilot, Mr. Rith said no one was perfect. “This is a small matter and has already been solved,” he said. “Every company, even with just three or four staff, you can still have problems, let alone when you’re sending people across borders.”
Mr. Bunhak, however, also speaking after the workshop, conceded there was room for improvement among some agencies, without singling any out, and that more regular meetings would be a good start.
“We need all six agencies to review the progress and consider what needs to be improved,” he said. “If you do not meet for three years, you never know what needs to be improved. You never find the mistake.”
Mr. Bunhak said he was also in the midst of drawing up an industry-wide code of conduct.
But labor rights advocates say what Cambodia’s foreign maids need most is a Labor Ministry that keeps the country’s recruitment agencies on a much shorter leash—a tough ask, they add, when some of them are bound by blood. They say making sure the agencies arm the maids with a working knowledge of the local language will be key.
The maids heading to Hong Kong are to get 854 hours of training before they leave, with 600 of them learning Cantonese, all squeezed into three months.
Chhan Sokunthea, who heads the women’s and children’s rights program for rights group Adhoc, said she was encouraged by what she heard at the workshop and that the Labor Ministry had stepped up its response to reports of abuse in recent years.
But she remained worried that the roughly $2,000 Cambodians will likely to have to pay the agencies to join the pilot program could drive many poor families into dangerous levels of debt and that three months won’t get them the language skills they’ll need to keep themselves safe.
“The Cambodian workers, they are unskilled, they cannot read and write. It’s very difficult for them,” she said. “They cannot read or write Cambodian. How can they learn Chinese in a few months?”
The Labor Ministry insists the training program being set up for the Hong Kong pilot will be better than those that came before. Hong Kong’s labor and welfare secretary, Law Chi-kwong, is set to arrive in Phnom Penh today to meet with Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng about the pilot and tour the six participating recruitment agencies.