Maids Forced Into Debt Bondage in Singapore

In August last year, the government launched a pilot project that sent 220 women to work as maids in Singapore, the first major effort to open up a new market for Cambodia’s domestic workers after the government halted sending maids to Malaysia due to persistent reports of abuse.

This week, two of the maids involved in the Singapore pilot returned to Cambodia with stories of forced debt bondage and abusive conditions, once again raising serious doubts about whether the rights of Cambodian migrants can be guaranteed by the well-connected recruitment agencies sending them abroad.

Nhem Thida, 31, and Phorn Mao, 24, were lured from their rural homes by Philimore Cambodia—a recruitment agency previously accused of a litany of human rights abuses—with promises of fair salaries and first-world conditions.

But soon after they landed in Singapore late last year, they realized those promises were lies.

“First, when I arrived in Singapore, the agency took my passport,” said Ms. Mao, one of seven children from a rice-farming family in Kompong Thom’s Prasat Sambor distict.

“I was told to sign a contract stating that my first six months’ salary would be paid to Philimore.”

That contract, a copy of which was obtained last month, stipulates that the migrant worker must, for the first six months of employment, pay $320 of her $385 salary to Philimore through the Singaporean moneylender SME Care. The interest rate on the loan is 20 percent.

Ms. Thida said she was made to sign a contract with the same terms.

After completing the paperwork, the two women said they were placed in a training center run by Singaporean maid agency National Employment, where they each stayed for about a month, waiting to be matched with employers.

“We had to sleep in a bed with four or five people every night and there were about 50 people in each room with the beds stacked three-high,” Ms. Mao said. “There were more than 100 women in one building—from Philippines, Indonesia, [Burma] and Cambodia.”

During the day, according to the women, they were expected to perform household duties in the center as prospective employers browsed the maids on offer.

“They trained me how to clean toilets properly,” said Ms. Thida, a single mother from Svay Rieng’s Svay Teap district.

“You must use two hands to show your strength because the employers are watching.”

After being selected by an employer, the situation improved for the women. Upon being chosen, there was generally more food and more sleeping space, they said, but conditions were not as good as Philimore had led them to believe.

Both women spoke of 18-hour workdays, sparse meals, occasional abuse and restrictive living conditions.

“Philimore told me I would have a private room, a mobile phone and a day off every week,” Ms. Mao said. “But things were very different to what they said.”

“I asked my employer for just one day off per month. But he said, ‘No need, cannot.’”

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, in both a maid handbook and a guide for employers, states that domestic workers must be allowed one day’s rest each week.

The ministry could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Hoh Seah Li, manager of Nation Employment, refuted the women’s claims of bed sharing, but declined to answer further questions.

Ms. Hoh said that women get “one bed each,” before adding, “You do not have the authority to ask me these questions.”

“We will not take any more Cambodian maids and we have many other nationalities to choose [from],” she said, before hanging up.

Chan Pheakdey, a representative of Philimore in Phnom Penh, said he was not convinced Ms. Mao and Ms. Thida’s stories were true. He said labor regulations in Singapore ensured the women’s safety.

“We have not received any irregularities or complaints from Singapore so far,” Mr. Pheakdey said, referring questions about the loan contract and the conditions at Nation’s training centers to Ung Seang Rithy, chairwoman of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA).

Ms. Seang Rithy—the sister of General Sok Phal, who was in April sworn in as head of a new Interior Ministry department charged with monitoring migrant workers—also said the women would be protected by Singaporean law.

Ms. Seang Rithy is also the head of the Ung Rithy Group—the second of three agencies given the right to participate in the government’s pilot project sending maids to Singapore.

“It doesn’t seem that there are any problems,” she said. “I think that Singapore is very strict with law enforcement.”

Ms. Seang Rithy declined to comment on the loan contract and the conditions for maids sent by her member agencies, referring questions to the ministries of labor and foreign affairs.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said the victims should file an official complaint and referred further questions to the Ministry of Labor.

Seng Sakada, director-general of the Labor Ministry’s labor department, declined to comment.

Mr. Sakada, to whom all questions regarding issues with migrant maids are referred from within the ministry, has his own interest in the trade. His daughter, Seng Toussita, is listed as the owner of recruitment agency Sok Leap Metrey—the third firm participating in the Singapore pilot project.

At a workshop for recruitment agencies in March, Pin Vireak, a secretary at ACRA, said Mr. Sakada himself chose the three agencies to have exclusive rights to the Singapore pilot.

The Ministry of Labor has declined to make available a copy of any agreement between Cambodia and Singapore, despite the urgings of CNRP lawmakers-elect Mu Sochua and Son Chhay.

Local rights group Licadho, which helped repatriate Ms. Mao and Ms. Thida, said Thursday that little had changed for migrant maids since Prime Minister Hun Sen put a moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia in 2011 after a spate of similar complaints.

Licadho president Naly Pilorge said the powerful government figures involved in the trade made outside authorities reluctant to interfere.

“Cambodia still lacks strong enforceable legislative protections for the workers, as well as unbiased authorities to regulate the sector,” Ms. Pilorge said.

“The lack of any prosecutions against maid recruitment agencies under the anti-trafficking law provisions demonstrates that impunity in this sector remains a concern,” she added.

Ms. Mao and Ms. Thida worked as maids in Malaysia before Mr. Hun Sen’s ban, and both said Thursday that their personal experiences in Singapore were worse.

Ms. Mao said that from the moment Nation Employment met her at the airport, she sensed trouble, but that there was no way back.

“When I arrived in Singapore, I realized things would be terrible. I could not move forward and I could not move backward. They took my passport; I was stuck in the middle,” she said.

The future is unclear for Ms. Thida, who said she just wanted to be healthy after being hospitalized twice in Singapore due to being overworked and underfed.

But Ms. Mao said it is only a matter of days before she starts looking for another job.

“I will go and visit my parents in Kompong Thom for just one day and then I will come back to Phnom Penh to find work in a garment factory,” she said.

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