The Cambodian Embassy in Malaysia returned abused Cambodian maids, including women who were raped by their employers, to work at maid recruitment agencies in that country, a new report by Human Rights Watch claims.
The New York-based rights group also said Cambodian police colluded with labor recruitment agencies to pressure abused Cambodian maids to remain in training programs and not to file legal complaints against agencies where they suffered abuse.
The 105-page report, which was released yesterday at a news conference in Phnom Penh, documented a wide range of abuses of Cambodian women working as maids in Malaysia, including debt bondage, underage recruitment and forced confinement by agencies, as well as physical and sexual abuse by Malaysian employers, who also frequently withheld workers’ salaries and passports.
“These women encounter abuse at every step of the migration cycle,” said Jyotsna Poudyal, who authored the Human Rights Watch report, adding that regulations in both Cambodia and Malaysia did little to protect maids.
The report showed that the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had in fact sent three rape victims who sought help with embassy officials back to their maid recruitment agencies.
“In one case, the [agency] eventually sent the rape victim back to the same employer who abused her […] The two other victims were forced to work against their will on the recruitment company premises,” the report said. None of three victims received medical or psychological care from the embassy or any state body in Malaysia.
In one case, a 36-year-old woman had escaped her abusive Malaysian employer but once outside was gang-raped by five men. Afterward she went on to live in a nearby jungle for three months, surviving on garbage and wild fruit.
She was rescued by a Malaysian NGO, which brought her to the Cambodian Embassy. Embassy officials, however, sent her back to her agency, the Ung Rithy Group, which put her to work in another office in Kuala Lumpur.
Asked about the Cambodian Embassy’s role in Cambodian maid abuse complaints, an official told researchers that, “If it is a minor abuse case, such as scolding or a few slaps, we suggest the worker goes back to the house,” the report said.
The report also said the embassy’s response was “inconsistent and inadequate” and its small staff was overwhelmed by requests for help from Cambodian maids, adding that it had received requests from 80 maids in 2010, 45 of who were repatriated.
In September, the Cambodian Embassy announced it planned to build a shelter for abused maids in Kuala Lumpur.
The report also said abused workers at Cambodian maid recruitment agencies had been pressured by Cambodian police, including anti-human trafficking officers, to remain in their training programs or to refrain from filing charges against their agencies.
In one case, a recruit named Sien Sopea, from Battambang province, said police came to look for her in her village after she had escaped from abuse at a Phnom Penh labor recruitment agency. “I recognized the policemen. They were from Phnom Penh and used to come to the training center,” the report quoted Ms Sopea as saying.
“[S]uch collusion between the police and recruitment agencies exists both at the local and national levels. Some agencies enjoy the backing of powerful government officials,” Human Rights Watch said in the report, adding that due to such connections “the government has not revoked the license of a single recruitment agency.”
Both Cambodia and Malaysia need to drastically improve migration protection through new regulations, Human Rights Watch said, adding that they should also sign a bilateral agreement that would protect Cambodian maids abroad.
Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a suspension on the sending of maids to Malaysia on Oct 15 following numerous reports of abuse.
The Labor Ministry, however, interpreted Mr Hun Sen’s ban as allowing another 3,000 workers depart for Malaysia to work as maids. The number of departing maids fell into the dozens later after the private labor agencies introduced a voluntary ban on sending maids. Talks between Cambodia and Malaysia over the ban have yet to begin.
Human Rights Watch’s Ms Poudyal said the ban seemed “an adhoc response, which is being generated out of a lot of pressure from media, NGOs and other international concerns.”
“We have to wait and see if the government is really serious about protecting Cambodian workers.”
Ho Vuthy, deputy director general at the Ministry of Labor’s department of labor, said he had not read the Human Rights Watch report, but maintained that it was “not true.”
“It’s not convincing. What do they base it on?” he asked.
Mr Vuthy denied that powerful connections between agencies and government officials were hampering the regulation of abusive recruitment firms and their unlawful practices.
“Don’t just talk. You need to find clear evidence,” Mr Vuthy said
“Can’t people with relatives in government have their own business?” he asked.
Last week, The Cambodia Daily revealed that family members of senior Interior Ministry and Labor Ministry officials were running several overseas labor recruitment agencies.
Chiv Phally, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking police department, also denied the report’s claims.
“We cannot accept … that Human Rights Watch said that police officials collude with recruitment agencies. We suggest the NGO researches these cases again,” he said.
Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies’ President An Bunhak questioned why Human Rights Watch had only talked to abused maids and not to those who had positive work experiences as maids.
“They should select [interviewees] randomly,” he said, adding that reports of police collusion with labor agencies was “probably just hearsay.