Confusion surrounds Malaysian media reports on Thursday that Cambodia has officially lifted a six-year ban on sending maids to Malaysia and could have the first new group there legally by the end of next month.
Malaysian news outlet The Star Online reported the ban had been lifted after a meeting between the two countries in Phnom Penh on May 11.
However Cambodian officials, gave conflicting accounts on whether the government had in fact lifted the ban, introduced in 2011 amid mounting reports that maids were being physically and financially abused by both the recruitment agencies sending them to Malaysia and the businesses or families with whom they were being placed.
Malaysia and Cambodia agreed in principle to lift the ban in December 2015, but they have been negotiating ever since over the details of a new arrangement for keeping the maids safe and fairly paid.
According to The Star, the country’s human resources minister, Ricardo Riot Jaem, said he and Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng agreed to end the ban when they met in Cambodia.
In a statement after their meeting, however, the Labor Ministry did not say the ban was over. It said the two men hoped to have the details of the new deal finalized by the end of this month.
Contacted on Thursday by text message, Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the ban was not yet lifted.
“We nearly reach the final process to reopen the market. Anyway, it depends on the choice of our people whether they want to go there or not,” he said. “It also depends on the demand by prospective employers in Malaysia.”
His colleague at the ministry, Labor Ministry Secretary of State Othsman Hassan, however, said the ban was lifted in January. “Malaysia agreed to protect the workers,” he said. “It’s official.”
Pin Vireak, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, also said the ban was lifted in January.
“Our government already issued a letter to resend the maids to Malaysia,” he said.
But Mr. Vireak said no Cambodian maids have yet gone to Malaysia legally because the details of the deal were still pending and that more meetings were needed to work them out.
Many Cambodian women continue to go to Malaysia to work as maids illegally, either on their own or with the help of companies the Cambodian government refuses to identify. Many of the women end up fleeing their employers with claims of abuse and seek the Cambodian Embassy’s help in returning home.
If or when the ban does lift, however, Mr. Vireak said he did not expect a rush of applicants.
“It’s difficult to recruit because the salary [in Malaysia] is not too high,” he said. “And also the maids have some experience in Malaysia.”
He said he could not predict when Cambodian maids were likely to start heading to Malaysia again legally.
According to The Star, Mr. Riot, the human resources minister, said he expected the first group to arrive after the Islamic holiday of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which this year ends on or around June 26. Neither government has provided any details about what new safeguards will be in place to protect future maids.
Labor rights groups in Cambodia say they have seen no sign of improvement and remain worried that the persistent family ties between some recruitment agencies and top labor and immigration officials will make real reform next to impossible.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)