Concern Over Migration Chief’s Family Connections

The appointment of General Sok Phal to head the Interior Ministry’s newly formed department to monitor migrant workers has raised concerns over his close familial connection to a labor recruitment industry fraught with human rights abuses.

Gen. Phal’s sister, Ung Seang Rithy, is the owner of one of the biggest labor recruitment agencies sending Cambodian workers overseas.

Sak Setha, a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, confirmed Tuesday that the department of immigration would deal with migrants entering and leaving the country.

Ouk Savouth, prosecutor-general of the Phnom Penh Appeal Court, confirmed that Gen. Phal was the brother of Ms. Seang Rithy, owner of the Ung Rithy Group, which has been named by rights groups as a serial abuser of Cambodian migrant workers. Ms. Seang Rithy is also president of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies.

Gen. Phal is scheduled to assume his responsibility as director-general of the general department of immigration in a ceremony today at the Interior Ministry.

“When I heard this news, I was concerned about the close relationships between high-ranking people in the government and in recruitment agencies,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center.

“Since the Labor Ministry failed to properly manage and monitor [migrant workers], labor recruitment basically became human trafficking,” Mr. Tola said. “The Ministry of Interior will now take on much more of the work, meaning Sok Phal will have even more influence than before.”

The Ung Rithy Group has been blasted for its recruitment and training practices. Dozens of returned maids have filed complaints with human rights groups outlining serious abuses, including debt bondage, forced confinement and underage recruitment. Many also had wages and passports withheld. Despite the raft of complaints, no one has ever been prosecuted.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, said Wednesday that the lack of justice for abused maids was due to links between agencies and powerful officials, and that Gen. Phal’s new role would strengthen that connection.

“This is a shameful appointment that sacrifices the well-being of migrants, since it will likely solidify recruitment agencies’ impunity to abuse intending migrants with no real fear they will ever be caught,” he said.

Mr. Robertson said that Ms. Seang Rithy’s firm “continually surfaced as a villain in accounts of women and girls who were cheated and abused during recruitment to work in Malaysia.”

“Ung Seang Rithy’s labor recruitment was consistently among the worst of the worst, deliberately recruiting child maids, trying to seize returning women at the airport from the protection of an NGO, and intimidating abused women in Malaysia,” he said.

In October 2011, as the complaints of abused maids began to surface, Prime Minister Hun Sen put an end to sending domestic workers to Malaysia.

The same year, Human Rights Watch released a 104-page report, They Deceived Us at Every Step, which documented recruitment agencies’ abuse of maids as well as physical and sexual abuse at the hands of employers.

The abuses, the report charges, went unchecked due to connections between recruitment agencies and highly placed officials.

“Some agencies enjoy the backing of powerful government officials,” the report says. “Several NGOs expressed concern that the police are unwilling to pursue investigations against labor agencies owned by or linked with high-ranking officials.”

The Ministry of Labor is currently finalizing a draft MoU that will ultimately see domestic workers once again sent from Cambodia to Malaysia.

Mr. Robertson said that while the MoU was a necessary step, it will mean little if it is not properly enforced.

“The appointment of Sok Phal as the head of the migration department shows that at least on the Cambodia side, it’s business as usual with little commitment to make rights respecting reforms that will benefit migrant workers,” he said.

Contacted Tuesday, Gen. Phal said that he had not yet been made aware of his official mandate within the new department, and declined to answer questions regarding any potential conflict of interest due to his sister’s investment in the business of migrant labor.

“Don’t ask me this. It is a private issue,” he said. “I work for the state.”

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)

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