Job recruitment agencies that send workers overseas often deceive young women through misleading job advertisements by using brokers that have “a position of authority” within the community, according to a new report by the Asia Foundation.
According to the report, agencies also inflate migration costs that recruits have to pay back, pushing workers deep into debt bondage.
“Currently, many of those recruited by licensed [recruitment agencies] for documented work in Malaysia find themselves deceived about conditions of work and pay,” the report says. “Recruitment of underage workers appears to be increasing, and there are numerous reports of sub-standard treatment in training centers, including cramped conditions, lack of food, and illegal confinement.”
Cambodian labor migration has rapidly increased in recent years, with hundreds of thousands of Cambodians heading to Thailand as illegal migrants, while at least 30,000 workers, mostly women, are currently working in Malaysia as domestic servants.
In recent months, there have been numerous reports in Cambodia of recruits being abused, ranging from forced detention in training centers to severe exploitation and physical abuse by Malaysian employers.
The report identifies many of these issues and gives a detailed overview of common recruitment practices in Cambodia.
It said that recruitment agencies have resorted to a range of exploitative recruitment techniques due to “little or no effective regulation” by the Ministry of Labor.
Misleading advertisements target the rural poor and offer immediate benefits like free telephones, sacks of rice and several hundred dollars of cash, the report said. However, “it is not explained that they will immediately be contracted into paying off this debt.”
Moreover, contracts between recruits and agencies frequently inflate the costs that recruits have to pay for arranging migration.
The report calculated the cost of arranging a passport, flight ticket, training and visa to be about $500. But major agencies like Philimore and Ung Rithy-which recruit thousands of women every year-put recruits into debts of more than $800.
The report also said that local brokers-who are described as “well-known within communities, frequently those who have a position of authority or respect”-entice rural women into signing employment contracts with false promises of high wages and favorable working conditions.
“The power of the [agency] runs straight down into the community, with brokers often being community members. As such, a recruit who pursues a claim [against the agency]… could suffer severe repercussions upon returning home,” the report said.
The report goes on to describe how once maids arrive in Malaysia, agencies break off contact with them soon after they receive payments from Malaysian employers, and leave workers alone in an environment where abuse is common.
Maids who escape abuse “are often identified [by Malaysian authorities] as irregular migrants and punished, rather than identified as victims and protected,” the report said.
Officials at the Ministry of Labor declined to comment on the report’s findings and officials at the Malaysian Embassy could not be reached.
Nandita Baruah, chief of the Asia Foundation’s Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program, said that in order to reduce exploitative recruitment practices the government’s new sub-decree on migrant labor should be strictly enforced.
Human rights groups have slammed the sub-decree, which was adopted last month, saying it provides little protection for workers, but officials have said a circular for the sub-decree’s implementation will address these issues.
“We have seen that other labor sending countries like Indonesia and Philippines have MOU’s with Malaysia to ensure better protection and working conditions for their workers,” said Ms Baruah.
Ly Hock Lao, director of Philimore recruitment agency, denied that his company was overcharging recruits and leaving them with large debts in the process.
“These things can also hurt our company, not only the maids. We cannot do anything illegal,” said Mr Hock Lao, who is also the secretary-general of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies.
“Free telephones, free rice and money, I have also heard about this, but our company doesn’t do this.”