At Phnom Penh agency, recruits say they are confined and forcibly sent abroad
The Minister of Labor yesterday defended his ministry’s much-criticized interpretation of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban on sending maids to Malaysia, after it allowed about 3,000 young women to still be sent abroad despite the serious risk of abuse and exploitation.
Minister of Labor Vong Sauth said the ministry had not flouted the prime minister’s order because the order had only banned new recruitment of trainees, and did not include those already recruited for work in Malaysia.
“His words mean to suspend new recruitment activities, so if they are recruited already and have signed job contracts, they will go” to Malaysia, he said, adding that recruits can depart if their registration with the ministry was completed before the ban.
Mr Hun Sen issued an order Saturday that stated, “from now on recruiting, training and sending of women to work as maids in Malaysia is temporarily suspended” until further notice. The ban followed repeated reports this year of severe abuse and exploitation of Cambodian maids by Malaysian employers and by recruitment agencies. Two Cambodian women also died this year, in apparent suicides, while working as maids for Malaysian employers.
Mr Sauth said suggestions in the media that his ministry had created a loophole in the ban were wrong.
“I was interested to read in the media…that we didn’t implement the directive, but the ministry did,” he said.
“In the future, there will be no more [Cambodian] maids working in Malaysia,” the minister said, adding that the ban only extends to future maids, and Cambodian migrant workers could still find employment in “factories and other businesses” in Malaysia.
Mr Sauth also said that if trainee workers want to break off their contract with an overseas recruitment agency, they should be allowed to leave freely.
“This is their right, and we can’t ban them” from leaving the agencies, he said.
About 7,000 recruits for overseas work are reportedly still housed in pre-departure training centers, at least 3,000 of whom are registered for departure to Malaysia, according to the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA).
More than 30,000 Cambodian maids are currently employed in Malaysia.
ACRA President An Bunhak said he believed that the Labor Ministry was not putting its own interpretation on the prime minister’s order and said that his association had government support for allowing agencies to send registered workers abroad.
“They [recruitment agencies] don’t do it by themselves, believe me,” he said. “They must have approval from the government.”
Meanwhile, interviews conducted at a Phnom Penh recruitment agency yesterday indicated that some registered workers—those who are listed with the Labor Ministry and are cleared for work overseas—were reluctant to go to Malaysia after hearing about the ban, while those who had not been registered were being forced to pay large sums of money to leave the agency.
At the offices of SKMM Investment Group Co Ltd, a member of ACRA, recruits said registered workers were being forced to board flights to Malaysia against their will, while unregistered trainees could not leave the training agency without paying fines to the agency owner.
Behind the bars of a small office along National Road 5 in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo commune, company staff guarded about 30 women and girls dressed in bright pink shirts, while in a nearby abandoned restaurant called Suon Sensok another 30 recruits were being held, also against their will.
Reporters were able to talk to those at the office before management arrived, and an 18-year-old worker, who did not give her name for fear of retribution, said she was registered to leave for Malaysia soon but did not want to go.
Malaysian law on migrant workers states that foreign workers must be at least 21 years old to work there, making the young woman interviewed yesterday already in contravention of that law.
“I am afraid after I heard that the government banned sending maids to Malaysia. Also, we don’t get enough food here,” the teenager said. “But we have no choice because we are very poor,” she added. “If we want to turn back home, the company will demand [money]” for training and travel costs, she continued.
An unregistered trainee from Svay Rieng province, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said almost all recruits at the center were scheduled to leave for Malaysia soon.
“They all have to go because they have no money [to pay the agency if they want to stay in Cambodia],” she said. “All don’t want to go.”
The unregistered recruit said she was in debt to the agency for the cost of food during her maid training, a blood test that she underwent and the $250 loan that she was given when she signed her contract.
Company staff referred all questions to their employer, Tan Kim Seng.
Mr Kim Seng, a deputy chief at the National Police’s international relations office at the Interior Ministry, claimed that the recruits at his center were free to go if they wanted to. “I haven’t asked them [the recruits] whether they want to go or not,” Mr Kim Seng said.
“We will allow them to go home, and we will guarantee the company’s losses, but they need to get their parents to come and take them,” he added.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng held a meeting at the Interior Ministry with the labor minister, Mr Sauth, yesterday to discuss implementation of the ban on maids to Malaysia. Mr Kheng declined to comment following the meeting.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the case of SKMM Investment Group showed that the government was not implementing the ban properly, as abuse and illegal confinement cases by agencies were simply continuing.
“That is why the Labor Ministry should take the lead and deal with this issue,” she said.
Ms Sochua, who is a former women’s affairs minister, also contested the labor minister’s interpretation of the ban.
“What I can see is that there is a loophole and…the Ministry of Labor is not complying with the order of the prime minister,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)