Cambodia has signed off on a draft agreement that would lift a moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia, imposed four years ago amid widespread reports of abuse, and is waiting for the Malaysian government’s approval, a Labor Ministry official said Tuesday.
The long-awaited memorandum of understanding (MoU) includes better safeguards to protect Cambodian maids against abuse, debt bondage and sexual violence, mounting evidence of which led Prime Minister Hun Sen to close the employment route in 2011.
However, critics say that due to close connections between the Cambodian government and recruitment agencies blamed for many of the abuses, it remains to be seen if the new agreement will be effective in protecting women sent to Malaysia.
Chuop Narath, deputy director of the Ministry of Labor’s labor department, said on Tuesday that as far as he was aware, the Malaysian government was in the process of approving the latest draft.
“Yes, our side already settled on it and we have the approval of our minister, but now the problem is with the Malaysia side. We are waiting for three or four months so we can’t do anything yet,” he said.
The Labor Ministry has estimated that reopening the route to Malaysia could bring $120 million to Cambodia in annual remittances. It has received technical support from the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) in an effort to ensure sufficient protection of human rights before opening the door for thousands to once again migrate as maids.
“Everyone is happy,” Mr. Narath said of the new MoU. “We have had many consultations in the drafts with the ILO and yes, they were always involved and are happy we can’t do anything more now.”
However, Tun Sophorn, the ILO’s national coordinator in Cambodia, said he was not sure what was in the version of the MoU the Labor Ministry had signed off on.
“I haven’t seen this draft, there are several drafts and we haven’t been back [in touch with the Labor Ministry] in a few weeks so I don’t know which one the ministry is talking about,” he said.
The Malaysia National Association of Employment Agencies (Pikap) sent a delegation to Phnom Penh last week to get ready for the resumption of the maid trade. Representatives of the association said they were confident that the agreement would be signed by the end of next month.
“As far as we are aware, the MoU is settled, finalized and just needs to be approved and then it will be signed,” Pikap’s deputy president, Aizan Lana, said Friday.
“I believe that it will be signed during the Asean meeting in April,” he said, referring to the 26th Asean Summit set to be held in Kuala Lumpur. “This will be good for the Cambodians who want to come to our country and good for our members, who have many jobs to fill.”
Pikap brought almost 90 representatives to Cambodia for the three-day visit last week that included meetings with the Labor Ministry, the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies and local rights group Adhoc.
Pikap’s president, Dato Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, said the full scope of the MoU was yet to be revealed but that it was time to reconnect with Cambodian counterparts so the restarting of business can be swift once the agreement is signed.
“Why should we wait just because we don’t know what the new procedures will be?” he said.
“We can obviously not guarantee that there will be total protection, but we have heard that in the MoU there will be pre-employment training, salary protection, medical cover and insurance and this will be a good-enough base.”
Mr. Dahalan added that overturning the ban was of pressing importance, citing recent reports of women who entered Malaysia illegally and were abused or went missing.
“At the end of the day, there are many [Cambodian maids] still coming, and those that do are undocumented and cannot be taken care of,” he said.
In January, Adhoc reported that since it began investigating in 2011, 122 Cambodian maids in Malaysia had either gone missing, worked under forced contract extensions, suffered abuse or been left unpaid.
And according to Malaysian media and industry websites, more than 800 foreign maids in the country are believed to flee employers every month due to poor working conditions, intimidation or abuse.
Mr. Dahalan said Adhoc had given him the list of missing Cambodian women and that the association was working to locate them, but noted that workers who are undocumented are difficult to track down.
“During the moratorium, the only people who have benefited are the illegal agents; the maids are coming anyway,” he said. “So now it is the time—we need to take back control.”
Adhoc president Thun Saray admitted that the ban had brought some negative consequences, but said reform was necessary to bring the process in line with international employment standards.
“Of course, there are positives and negatives, such as [illegal] brokers profiting,” he said, “but this shouldn’t take away from the necessity to get it right before restarting recruitment.”