Cambodia has signed agreements with Saudi Arabia setting up negotiations to work out the final details of a deal that will reopen legal channels for Cambodians to find jobs in the Middle Eastern country, where employers are often accused of abusing migrant workers.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng was in Riyadh on Thursday to sign two memoranda—one specifically for maids and another for all other workers—with his Saudi counterpart, Mufrej Al-Haqbani, according to a statement issued by Cambodia’s Labor Ministry on Friday.
“The agreements are important to protect the rights and interests of Khmer migrant workers, and the two sides are required to prepare a management system for employment recruiters and for repatriation of the migrant workers in accordance with the law,” it says.
The statement added that the two parties will set up a joint commission to figure out exactly how to implement the deal, offering no timeframe or details regarding Cambodia’s exact goals.
The memoranda themselves were not released. Seng Sakada, who heads the Labor Ministry’s labor department, declined to comment.
Human Rights Watch has released reports on what it calls the “rampant” abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, including forced labor and exploitative conditions. In November, it said recent Saudi labor reforms could help curb the abuse but warned that conditions for domestic workers would remain the same.
As for the new memoranda, Saudi Arabia and Cambodia were at a similar point in negotiations six years ago.
In 2010, the two countries were poised to sign a memorandum of understanding that would have cleared the way for Cambodia to send 5,000 maids to Saudi Arabia per month.
At the time, the Cambodian Labor Ministry said the two sides had agreed to use the ministry’s own clinic to screen workers before they left the country and were also still searching for a bank to handle remittances. Though the deal never materialized, a trickle of Cambodian workers has continued to reach Saudi Arabia through unofficial channels.
In 2005, Cambodia sent 34 women to the country as part of an official pilot program but soon ended the arrangement because it lacked a diplomatic presence in the region that could keep track of the workers, according to the International Labor Organization.
A Labor Ministry official at the time said Cambodian recruitment agencies were ordered to stop sending workers over fears that reports of migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia having their arms and legs cut off might be true.
Cambodia has since opened an embassy in neighboring Kuwait.
Remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who go abroad for work are a vital economic boost to the country’s rural communities, but rights groups accuse the government of not doing enough to protect them.