Just two days after Prime Minister Hun Sen personally ordered an immediate ban on sending Cambodian maids to Malaysia, the Ministry of Labor offered job recruitment agencies an exemption to the order, allowing them to continue to send thousands of registered recruits abroad, the director of one of the larger agencies said yesterday.
Human rights groups and an opposition lawmaker were disappointed by the measure and said the Labor Ministry was openly defying Mr Hun Sen’s order, as it undermined the ban and continued to place Cambodian women at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Ly Hock Lao, director of Philimore Cambodia Co recruitment agency, said the Labor Ministry met with the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA) on Monday and agreed to create an exemption to the ban that allows all recruits who were already registered with the ministry to leave for Malaysia.
“We allow [recruits] who are under training and registered with the ministry already” to leave Cambodia. “New recruitment is not allowed any more,” said Mr Hock Lao, who is also secretary-general of ACRA.
The exemption deviates from the order signed by Mr Hun Sen on Saturday. The order says, “From now on recruiting, training and sending of women to work as maids in Malaysia is temporarily suspended” until further notice.
Ministry of Labor officials declined to comment on the loophole. “I don’t know how many recruits will continue to be sent to Malaysia,” deputy director-general Ho Vuthy said before hanging up on a reporter.
“For me, this is a very good result,” said Mr Hock Lao, adding that Philimore Cambodia Co had about 260 recruits “under training” who would now be allowed to leave. Mr Hock Lao said the ban’s loophole allowed his company to recover the costs it had incurred for training, transport and travel documents of recruits, which were “at least $500, $600” per recruit.
ACRA’s 13 members have several hundred registered recruits each, and between 2,000 and 3,000 maids are now likely to depart for Malaysia despite the moratorium.
On Monday morning, two recruitment agencies—Top Manpower and IIS Co—were apparently already aware of the loophole, as their staff put about 25 recruits on board a flight to Malaysia, rights group Licadho has said.
A total of about 7,000 trainees remain in pre-departure training centers, ACRA has said. ACRA president and Top Manpower director An Bunhak declined to comment.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the loophole was unacceptable. “I am not satisfied at all, because it’s such a large number” of recruits that will be sent to Malaysia, she said. “A suspension is a suspension. It should not allow the sending of maids to continue.”
Ms Sochua, a former minister of women’s affairs, has long called for a ban following numerous reports of abuse and exploitation of Cambodian women and girls at the hands of recruitment agencies and Malaysian employers. The decision by the Labor Ministry, she said, now means that “the order has been put off until these recruits are sent.”
In a letter to the prime minister sent on Monday, Ms Sochua said the government should focus on overhauling the regulation of agencies and on negotiating a bilateral agreement with Malaysia that would protect Cambodian workers there.
More than 30,000 Cambodian maids are reportedly employed in Malaysia.
Am Sam Ath, supervisor at Licadho, said the loophole in the ban meant that “all activities by recruitment agencies will still continue.”
“We are still concerned about the workers’ safety, as the companies continue to send maids into a serious situation,” he said. “Agencies should allow recruits to return back home freely during the ban.”
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said he was surprised that the Labor Ministry would change Mr Hun Sen’s order, as “it does not give any space to the ministries to create an exemption or different interpretation.”
“It seems like they act against the prime minister’s order,” he said, adding that such a public lack of respect for Mr Hun Sen’s authority was highly unusual.
Mr Tola said the exemption would lower the pressure on the Malaysian government to negotiate a labor migration agreement with Cambodia and also tempt agencies—many of which have been caught falsifying recruits’ identity documents—to commit fraud on their recruits’ paperwork in order to make them eligible for departure.