Were it not for the kindness of a stranger, 26-year-old Ngoem Vath would still be trapped in Malaysia, where she claims she spent more than a year working in abusive conditions, she said.
Ms Vath was recruited through Human Power Co Ltd to work as a maid but ended up spending around 21 hours a day cleaning her employer’s home and massage parlor business, she said.
“My female boss always hit my head…. I didn’t get enough to eat, and slept only 3 hours a day,” she said.
Only a remarkable coincidence finally allowed her to return home, she said.
A woman from Kompong Cham province walked by the massage parlor and spoke to her, Ms Vath said. After learning of Ms Vath’s plight, a woman paid for her ticket and arranged for her return, she said, adding that she does not know the identity of the woman.
“After she heard about my difficulties, she pitied me,” she said.
But her difficulties didn’t end there. Since she did not complete the full two-year contract she initially signed up for, she claims she has not been paid for the 14 months she spent in Malaysia.
“Before leaving, my boss said I would not get any money,” she said, adding that she had been promised a monthly salary of $150 but has only received around $115 in total.
Chhuo Vichet, owner of Human Power Co Ltd, said he was not familiar with Ms Vath’s case, but said the company would only withhold a worker’s salary if they had “problems.” He declined to comment further.
Human Power is a member of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies and one of at least 28 recruiters licensed by the Labor ministry.
An Bunhak, ACRA chairman, said that employers in the destination country currently set up bank accounts for workers and pay their salary into it each month. He said this happens “99 percent” of the time, and that though he was unaware of Ms Vath’s case, such examples are the exception.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said the center was providing legal assistance to Ms Vath. He said he has investigated some recruiters that lend money to workers’ families and withhold the workers’ salaries until the debt is paid.
Members of ACRA are currently allowed to lend money to workers or their families, but only on the understanding that it need not be paid back if the worker subsequently quits, Mr Bunhak said.
“We have requested that the Ministry of Labor…not allow companies to lend to the workers or their families,” he said.
The Labor Ministry is currently drafting a sub-decree to regulate the recruitment of migrant workers–including a section on lending that appeared in Khmer-language newspapers last week–though officials have not said when it will be finished.
Mr Bunhak said that allegations of abuse, spurred by bad practices at a minority of recruiters, had cast a shadow over the industry recently.
“Some agencies have strict regulations where workers need to ask permission to leave and have an obligation to pay back money before they can. It’s not good for us,” he said.