While the abuse of Cambodian domestic workers abroad, particularly in Malaysia—and the unlawful practices of the local recruitment agencies that send them there—have made headlines in recent weeks, the plight of maids working locally receives far less attention.
Local domestic workers, according to human rights groups, have experienced beatings, rape and torture in Cambodian households, and apart from such gross abuses, domestic workers face a host of more mundane but no less important issues: no set working hours, low wages, no days off, conditions of virtual house-arrest, and little or no access to education or health care.
Maids serving in Cambodian households are also frequently children. But this form of child labor is often seen as charity by families who take in a poor relative or orphan to be their servant.
“There have been eight reported cases of underage maids being abused in Cambodia so far this year,” said Sao Seny, child rights monitor for rights group Licadho. “Most incidents involved children being raped or tortured.”
“It’s difficult to figure out how many cases of abuse occur, because it’s happening inside the house,” Ms Seny said, adding that most children work long hours and never see their salaries, as it goes straight to their parents or guardians. “Most children live in fear because they are not allowed out of the house and are always beaten and picked on.”
According to Ms Seny, girls under 15 working as maids earn about 50,000 to 70,000 riel ($12 to $15) a month, and adult maids earn between 100,000 and 200,000 riel ($25 to $50) a month. There is no minimum wage for domestic workers in Cambodia.
A 2008 study by Licadho and World Vision estimated that there are 21,000 children toiling in domestic labor in Cambodia—either to pay back family debt or due to dire poverty. The study found that such children are also deprived of the right to an education and health care by their employers.
According to the Cambodian labor law, it is illegal for children under 15 to work, and children under 18 are prohibited from working in hazardous environments—but given that most domestic work takes place behind closed doors, there is huge leeway for abuse of these laws.
Just a few months ago, a 16-year-old girl working as a maid for a family in Banteay Meanchey province was rescued during a police raid after neighbors tipped off authorities to the fact that she was being abused, according to Chhim Mara, provincial director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, where the teenager is now living.
“She was frequently beaten with metal wires and bashed with an electric fan,” Ms Mara said. “When the owner threw the fan at the victim in a rage and it broke, the cost of the fan was deducted from the girl’s wages.”
“Neighbors were aware of the abuse and informed the police,” Ms Mara said, adding that when the girl arrived at the shelter, her entire body was covered in scars and bruises. Although she is now recuperating at the center, she still suffers from anxiety, as she will have to face her former employer when the case goes to court.
The teenager is not alone. Last year, a Phnom Penh woman was arrested and charged with causing intentional injury after throwing boiling water at a 17-year-old domestic worker.
And in an especially brutal case in 2009, three people were charged with the torture of their 11-year-old maid in Phnom Penh. The girl was frequently beaten with coat hangers and brooms, and had clumps of her hair and flesh pulled out with pliers. She sustained more than 200 scars to her body over the two years she worked for the family.
Figures on how many underage girls work as maids in Cambodia, and how many maids suffer abuse at the hands of their employers, are hard to come by due to the dearth of cases reported.
The International Labor Organization’s last survey on child labor here was completed in 2001, although the group is in the process of conducting another survey due for release in mid-2012, according to ILO communications and advocacy officer Maeve Galvin.
Othsman Hassan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, denied that domestic servants in Cambodia face issues such as abuse or overwork. Only migrant workers face such problems, he said.
“There’s no problem. We don’t have that, only those sent abroad,” Mr Hassan said. “In Cambodia, they have to follow the law. If you use children, the law does not allow it.”
But Moeun Tola, head of the labor rights program at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said that the abuse of servants does not only take place abroad and that local maids still face a multitude of challenges.
“A lot of them are underage and live without any guaranteed/standard working conditions, since [there’s] a lack of monitoring mechanisms and Cambodia does not have [a] specific law to protect them strongly,” Mr Tola said by e-mail.
“They don’t have [weekends] off or any holidays…. No minimum wage is yet determined by law…and those underage don’t go to school.”