A government official on Wednesday admitted that his now-defunct recruitment firm had sent a 16-year-old Cambodian maid to work in Saudi Arabia, where she was stranded for 12 years until a viral Facebook video calling for help finally prompted her repatriation this week.
He claimed to have not known she was underage at the time, but a former employee cast doubt on the claim, while the Labor Ministry on Wednesday said the official’s operation would have been illegal.
Sos Rotus, 28, arrived home this week from Saudi Arabia alleging that her employers refused to pay her and restricted her freedom.
She was just 16 when she was recruited in 2005 by an agency then run by Ahmad Yahya, a leader in the country’s Cham Muslim community and a secretary of state at the Social Affairs Ministry. Her family had lost contact with her 10 years ago and had assumed she was dead until the Facebook video surfaced.
Mr. Yahya, who visited Ms. Rotus and her family in Kompong Thom province on Wednesday, said that he had not been aware that Ms. Rotus was underage.
However, Sles Nazy, who was employed by Mr. Yahya to teach English to recruits, including Ms. Rotus, said he knew that the girl was a minor and that she had used her neighbor’s birth certificate to get a passport.
Mr. Nazy called a reporter back later in the day and attempted to change his story. He said Mr. Yahya had called him and “recommended” that he clarify that he did not know about Ms. Rotus’ age.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said that sending minors abroad violates the Labor Law, adding that “the victim can sue the company.”
Helen Sworn, founder and international director of anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said recruited minors were also considered victims of human trafficking under the law.
“If they knowingly took her as a minor to any country she would…automatically become a victim of human trafficking,” she said.
Mr. Yahya said his company—which recruited “more than 100” Cambodians—had been operating for about a year on a “temporary license” when it was shut down by the government some time after Ms. Rotus left the country. Mr. Yahya said he had been given no explanation for the closure at the time, but Mr. Sour, the Labor Ministry spokesman, said such an operation would have been illegal.
Mr. Yahya also claimed that Ms. Rotus’ family did not seek assistance from him when they lost contact with her two years after she arrived in Riyadh.
“From 12 years ago until today I did not hear anything,” he said.
The recruitment agency had given clear instructions on who to call if trouble arose, he said.
“We instruct them to contact us in Cambodia so we know where they are,” he said. But “the mother, the father, the maid, did not contact our company. We had given them everything—phone numbers here, phone numbers in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“I don’t know why they didn’t. This is their problem,” he added.
This was refuted by Ms. Rotus’ mother, Los Nas, however, who said that she had traveled to Phnom Penh in 2007 and begged Mr. Yahya for help. He told her he could not help, she said.
“I asked him to help look for [my daughter], but he did not do anything,” she said. “I asked him: ‘Please give me the phone number.’ He responded: ‘How could I, because I do not have one either,’” she said.
Ms. Sworn, of Chab Dai, said recruitment agencies had a responsibility to their clients while they were overseas.
“The recruitment agency in Cambodia has to deposit a certain amount of money into a Ministry of Labor or Ministry of Finance account—it’s supposed to be set aside related to expenses if Cambodians have to be brought back from overseas,” she said.
Mr. Sour, the spokesman, confirmed the process.
In Saudi Arabia, Ms. Rotus said she had little help from authorities. She said she had escaped a rape attempt at the house of the first employer, who refused to pay her. But when she was dropped off at a police station, officers allegedly declined to help her renew her passport and visa, citing lack of funds, and instead found her another employer, who also failed to pay up. After 10 years with the second employer, she was taken to a police station again. This time, the police filed a complaint, she said. She was compensated by the Saudi government after she was repatriated, her family has said. Saudi government representatives could not be reached.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of allowing the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers for years, and domestic workers have been particularly vulnerable.
Chab Dai was currently investigating other cases involving Cambodian victims in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Sworn said.
“There’s a much greater challenge for them because there is no Cambodian Embassy in the country,” she said.
The closest Cambodian Embassy is in Kuwait, more than 500 km from Riyadh.
Ms. Sworn said Ms. Rotus should be encouraged to pursue criminal charges in Saudi Arabia.
“The thing is, we are going to see more and more cases in Saudi Arabia, and hers could be a very important case—it could actually be a precedent case,” she said, adding that it could send a message to both workers and employers. “In order to protect Cambodian migrant workers, it needs to be pursued through the justice system,” she said.