After a three-year moratorium on sending maids overseas—sparked by a spate of serious abuses by recruiters and employers—momentum is building to once again send hundreds of thousands of Cambodian women to work overseas as domestic servants.
Since Prime Minister Hun Sen shut down the industry in October 2011, reports of sexual abuse, confinement and forced labor have continued to filter back to Cambodia from Malaysia.
Now, the government is looking to reopen the channel of maids to Malaysia, and is seeking to add Singapore and Saudi Arabia as potential destinations.
A Labor Ministry delegation is currently in Malaysia for what it hopes will be the final round of negotiations before a deal is signed to resume sending maids there. The ministry is also overseeing the placement of several hundred maids on a pilot program in Singapore, and the government said Thursday that Saudi Arabia is now in line to receive Cambodian domestic workers.
“Based on our previous experience sending workers to Thailand and Malaysia, we estimate that $120 million [could] be sent to Cambodia in remittances each year,” said Heng Suor, spokesman for the Labor Ministry.
“We know that income is one priority but we do not want the public to have misconceptions. The first priority is that the workers are safe in the other country.”
Since the 2011 freeze, the Ministry of Labor, with technical support from the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO), has worked to tighten regulations around the recruitment of maids and the protection of their human rights.
In December, the Ministry launched eight new directives to support Sub-Decree 190 on the Management of Sending Cambodian Workers Abroad Through Private Recruitment Agencies.
While not legally binding, the prakas give greater control of the maid market to the Labor Ministry—now the sole body tasked with handling formal complaints and monitoring and inspecting recruitment agencies.
“We have the right mechanisms in place to deal with abusive practices, particularly of the private recruitment agencies,” said Tun Sophorn, the ILO’s national coordinator.
“The Ministry of Labor now has the authority over the sector and if all the regulations are properly implemented, it will improve the whole system.”
However, labor advocacy groups have raised concerns that connections between powerful people in the ministry and the recruitment agencies they regulate could stifle efforts to clean up the industry.
Human Resources Development Company, a Phnom Penh-based recruitment agency, is owned by the family of Othsman Hassan, a Labor Ministry secretary of state, according to local rights group Licadho.
In December, Mr. Hassan chaired a workshop on the Malaysia MoU. In his opening speech, he urged a swift return to business.
“The more workers we can send, the more money we can earn and the more money comes back to Cambodia,” Mr. Hassan said. A target of 300,000 maids in Malaysia would amount to annual remittances of $1.5 billion, he added.
Seng Toussita, the daughter of Seng Sakada, director-general of the Labor Ministry’s labor department, also has interests in the maid trade as owner of the recruitment agency Sok Leap Metrey.
Sok Leap Metrey—along with Philimore and the Ung Rithy Group—was given exclusive rights to the Singapore pilot, a decision that came from Mr. Sakada, according to Pin Vireak, a secretary at the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA).
“We got a call from the Ministry of Labor approving the three companies [for the Singapore pilot],” Mr. Vireak said after a training workshop for recruitment agencies in March. “Mr. Sakada is the director of the labor department and he made the decision.”
Mr. Sakada is currently leading the Cambodian side in negotiations with Malaysia. Also on the trip is Ung Seang Rithy, owner of Ung Rithy Group and president of ACRA. Ms. Seang Rithy is the sister of General Sok Phal, who was recently promoted to head a new migration department at the Interior Ministry.
In a 2011 Human Rights Watch report that collected the stories of scores of returned maids, Ung Rithy Group was accused of debt bondage, recruiting underage girls and overlooking sexual abuse.
Young women, mostly from the countryside, were seduced by promises of better wages in developed countries. In some cases, they were held against their will in training centers in Phnom Penh, where they accrued debts as Ung Rithy Group organized passports and work permits, leaving the women with little choice but to sign two- and three-year contracts to be placed in Malaysia.
Returned maids told HRW that representatives of Ung Rithy had withheld passports and wages, cut off contact with families and denied recourse to maids claiming that employers had abused them.
The Ministry of Labor, however, took no action.
“The Ministry of Labor is exactly where the problem starts,” said Mu Sochua, a CNRP lawmaker-elect and former women’s affairs minister who has campaigned unsuccessfully for the MoU between Malaysia and Cambodia to be made public.
“I still receive phone calls every day from people whose sisters or daughters were sent to Malaysia but cannot be found,” she said.
“It is the same people [running the industry] who were responsible for the abuses before, with the same connections. How can we believe that it will be different this time?”
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