Four years after Prime Minister Hun Sen personally outlawed the practice of Cambodian women traveling to Malaysia to work as domestic servants, the two countries have agreed to restart the maid trade, according to a statement released by the Labor Ministry on Thursday.
For at least two years, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been going back and forth between Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur, with the Cambodian side asking for greater protections for maids —who have been subjected to exploitation and torture—and the Malaysians attempting to keep condi- tions favorable for employers.
No details of the final MoU were available on Thursday, but the statement said it had been signed, along with a second agreement aimed at protecting other Cambodian laborers who leave to work in Malaysia.
“The two parties agreed…to have specialist officials of both countries meet soon to prepare action plans to implement the MoUs [and] produce a system to manage laborers electronically,” it said, adding that measures would also be taken to prevent human trafficking and labor exploitation.
“The two MoUs will be an important tool in protecting the rights and benefits of laborers from both countries in recruitment, working and returning home.”
Cambodia shut down official channels for sending maids to Malaysia in 2011 following reports of unpaid wages, forced overtime, inadequate food, and physical and sexual abuse. Women have continued to go illegally, however, intermittently returning with horror stories of abuse at the hands of their employers.
One woman who didn’t make it home to tell her story was Mey Sichin, 23, whose gaunt body was found covered in bruises and lacerations at the home of her Malaysian employers in 2012. The couple that hired her was sentenced to death by hanging in October.
The new MoU is ostensibly aimed at formalizing the process of Cambodians traveling to work in Malaysia, in order to ensure nobody slips through the cracks, as so often occurred in the past.
In December 2013, a version of the MoU that Phnom Penh had edited was sent back to Cambodia with a black line through a provision it had added, asking that employers “respect the basic human rights of the DW [domestic worker].”
The Cambodian side, with assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO), has also pushed for maids to be allowed to hold their own passports, view and sign contracts before leaving Cambodia, receive three meals per day and be paid annual leave.
“As far as I know, I believe [Kuala Lumpur] accepted everything proposed by Cambodia, but I have not seen the signed MoU and I have no details of it, so I cannot say for sure,” Tun Sophorn, national coordinator for the ILO, said last night.
“I met with [Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng] on Tuesday before he went to Malaysia and he is very satisfied with the MoU.”