Migrant Worker Rules Pro-Business, NGOs Say

They say draft sub-decree offers inadequate protections, lacks key provisions

Amid growing concerns over the abuse of migrant workers, human rights workers said yesterday that new draft regulations on recruitment agencies offered in­adequate protections. They also said the Labor Ministry had failed to consult them but had listened to recruitment agencies.

Human rights groups say they have received numerous complaints of abuse of migrant workers by both agencies and foreign employers, indicating that the government is failing to protect workers.

Hou Vuthy, deputy director gen­eral at the Labor Ministry, said Tuesday that the new draft sub-decree had been sent to the Council of Ministers for approval in January, adding that it would replace the current sub-decree on migrant labor from 1995.

Mr Vuthy said the ministry had completed the draft after inviting job agencies and representatives of three unions to comment on it.

“It’s now out of the hands of the Ministry of Labor already,” he said. “I hope the sub-decree will …regulate the agencies.”

There has been a rapid increase in the number of Cambodian migrant workers in recent years and in the number of agencies arranging their employment.

More than 20,000 Cambodian women now work as maids in Malaysia alone, where they earn about $300 million per year. About 100 agencies arrange these jobs and prepare the mostly rural young women to work overseas.

Government regulations in Cambodia have been slow to keep up with the increased work migration, and the International Labor Organization has said there is an urgent need to improve government regulation of migrant labor.

Scrutiny has most recently fallen on agency T&P after a woman broke a heel and an ankle while trying to escape alleged illegal confinement in the company’s training center earlier this month. Rights groups say the company also failed to help a maid allegedly abused by her Malaysian employer and falsified the ages of underage recruits.

Phnom Penh anti-trafficking police this month lodged a complaint with the municipal court, seeking to prosecute the labor recruitment agency for alleged illegal confinement of trainees, a criminal offense that can carry a ten-year prison sentence.

Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor at the human rights group Licadho, questioned why the Labor Ministry had not consulted NGOs or rights groups when developing the sub-decree.

“The draft lacks many points, and if we want it to be good and guarantee workers’ interests, the government should open the door to NGOs that have experience in dealing with migrant workers’ issues,” he said.

Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, also criticized the draft, saying it lacked several key provisions: specific penalties for agencies violating regulations, a maximum duration for pre-departure training programs, and rules prohibiting agencies from putting trainees in debt.

He said the draft also did not specify how the government would cooperate with foreign governments to protect the rights of Cambodian workers abroad.

A late 2010 copy of the draft obtained this week says only that conflict between a foreign employer and a Cambodian worker “must be solved by negotiation.”

“In general, the draft doesn’t respond to the current issues of migrant workers,” Mr Tola said. “The sub-decree has to be stronger and wider, and open to human rights groups’ comments.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, also criticized the Labor Ministry for failing to consult human rights groups.

“It’s appalling that this important regulation has been totally hidden from public view and scrutiny on its way to the Council of Ministers,” Mr Robertson wrote in an e-mail.

“While […] groups working to protect migrant workers have been kept in the dark, I have no doubt that the politically well-connected owners of many of these labor recruitment companies have had plenty of opportunity to influence this regulation,” he added.

Mr Vuthy, the Labor Ministry official, defended the Ministry’s drafting process and said the sub-decree had been discussed with “the parties concerned.”

“I don’t know which groups are now complaining and on which point,” he said. “The people can complain, but anyway it’s already submitted to the Council of Ministers.”

Mr Vuthy said that after the sub-decree’s promulgation the ministry would issue a circular on implementing the decree, and that rights groups might have a chance to help draft those rules.

ILO spokesperson Maeve Galvin said yesterday that the ILO was still in the process of reviewing the draft sub-decree but added that the group “encourages full consultation…with relevant stakeholders.”

An Bunhak, president of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, said that the recruitment agencies, meanwhile, were satisfied with the proposed draft. He said it included all suggestions made by the private sector.

Human rights groups “never accept the achievements of the Ministry of Labor or of our association,” he said, adding, “I believe there are also strong benefits for the workers” in the draft sub-decree.


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