Cambodia agreed to help Hong Kong meet its growing demand for domestic workers on Monday by signing off on a pilot program that could see the first group of 1,000 maids arrive in the region before year’s end.
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng was in Hong Kong for the signing ceremony with Stephen Sui, the region’s secretary for labor and welfare.
The agreement follows a similar pilot program Cambodia signed with Singapore in 2013 that became mired in controversy. Singapore’s Straits Times reported at the time that language barriers kept local recruitment agencies from filling the 400 available slots, while some of the women complained of debt bondage, forced overtime, shorted salaries and sexual abuse.
But Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour, contacted in Hong Kong, was eager to tout the region’s safety protocols.
The labor department of Hong Kong is “very active” in protecting foreign workers and has “a very detailed scheme to inspect Hong Kong employers who employ foreigners, particularly foreign domestic helpers,” he said. “Therefore, the cases of abuse are very minimized in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong has a policy of no tolerance to any abuse toward a foreign domestic helper by any employer.”
He said foreign maids in Hong Kong were also guaranteed free health insurance, one day off per week and 14 days of annual leave.
Mr. Sour said the pilot program was set to last five years. He did not respond to questions about when the program was expected to start or how many Cambodians it was likely to funnel to Hong Kong.
The South China Morning Post reported that the first 1,000 Cambodians were expected to arrive in September or October.
Photographs posted to Mr. Sam Heng’s Facebook page Monday’showed him touring the new Training Center for Cambodian Domestic Helpers of Hong Kong, where new arrivals are to brush up on their cleaning and cooking skills.
Moeun Tola, director of Cambodian labor rights group Central, said he would wait to see the details of the signed agreement before passing judgment on the deal, but was immediately reminded of the debacle of Cambodia’s pilot program with Singapore.
He said that deal also included promises of proper training and protection, “but at the end of the day, the implementation was not done.”
He added that some employers in Singapore wrote to him complaining of the lack of fair competition among Cambodian recruitment agencies sending the maids over, a problem he believes has not gone away.
“The problem is, most of the owners of the recruitment agencies have links with the government officials, so there is a conflict of interest,” Mr. Tola said.
He noted that Hong Kong had its own problems with reports of maids being physically abused and forced to work overtime or at multiple locations, including restaurants, in clear breach of the rules.
“It may be better than Malaysia, but it still has problems,” he said.
Cambodia barred its citizens from working in Malaysia as maids in 2011 amid mounting reports that they were being abused by both their employers abroad and the local recruitment agencies sending them over.
The two countries agreed in principle to let Cambodians resume working in Malaysia as maids in late 2015, but they have yet to settle on the details.