In the past 10 months, local rights group Adhoc has received 98 cases involving the abuse of migrant workers, a more than twofold increase from the total number of cases in 2010, rights workers said Friday.
“The number of Cambodian migrant workers who died or were involved in accidents is increasing,” said Sawada Chan Krisna, head of Adhoc’s women’s and children’s rights program, speaking at a conference held at the rights group’s Phnom Penh headquarters.
The cases range from overwork and withheld wages to confinement, forced severing of contact with family and friends, starvation and mental and physical abuse. Fifteen of the cases recorded by Adhoc involved workers in Thailand, four in Indonesia and one in Taiwan. But the vast majority were from Malaysia.
“We’re worried about the safety of Cambodian migrant workers, especially domestic workers to Malaysia who continue to suffer various human rights abuses at the hands of recruiters, employers and traffickers both within the country and abroad,” said Ms. Krisna.
“Adhoc calls upon the government, both state and non-state actors working on migration issues, to provide immediate assistance to migrant workers who encounter prolonged human rights abuses from recruiters…and traffickers,” she added.
In October, amid mounting reports of abuse, Cambodia announced a ban on sending maids to Malaysia.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the government was working to redress the more pressing issues regarding migrant labor, and pointed to the maid ban as an expression of the government’s concern.
“We’ve requested the Malaysian foreign minister to sign an MOU, but we haven’t had a reply yet,” said Mr. Kuong. “It’s in order to protect the rights and dignity of Cambodian workers in Malaysia.”
“The Ministry of Labor has also taken some measures to protect our workers, too,” he added. Multiple officials at the Ministry of Labor could not be reached for comment or refused to speak by phone.
Repatriated workers speaking at Friday’s conference, meanwhile, detailed a litany of horrors faced while employed as migrant laborers.
“I worked from 6 am until midnight,” said Sok Lydeth, who was employed as a maid in Malaysia from September 2010 until July 2011 before her employers arranged for her to be sent home with no pay. Despite the long hours, Ms. Lydeth was provided with just two meals a day.
“Because of the long hours of work and the lack of food, I became sick,” she said, before pulling up her hem to reveal legs that are still swollen from malnutrition months later.
Also at the conference, several parents spoke on behalf of children who have gone missing while working as laborers overseas.
“I want to know whether she’s alive or not,” said Morm Pech, 55. Ms. Pech has not heard from her daughter, 25-year-old Ros Saruon, since she left the country in August 2007 to work as a maid in Malaysia.
On Monday, Labor Ministry officials will meet with NGOs, unions and the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA) to put the finishing touches on a “model contract” aimed at improving recruitment agency regulation.
“These contracts don’t deviate from one another,” explained Thomas Ebbs, a women’s rights consultant for the Community Legal Education Center. “The government recognized that many of the issues facing domestic workers come from a lack of regulation and procedural problems…. The general concern is that when people sign these contracts, they don’t realize what they are signing and they tend to be heavily in favor of the recruitment agencies. These contracts aim to redress that unbalance.”
His words were echoed by An Bunhak, president of ACRA, who called the contracts a way to clarify who the responsible party is, should problems occur.
“Everyone [involved] will know what is the obligation of the worker, what is that of the agency, what is that of the employer and what is that of the government,” he said, adding that ACRA would make it “compulsory” for recruitment agencies to use the revised contracts starting Jan 1.
“It’s for the protection not just of the maids but of all migrant workers,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)