A recent string of serious incidents involving training programs for overseas maids has exposed the confinement of workers by recruitment agencies, according to human rights workers, who say the practices violate workers’ basic rights.
Those working in the industry insist these cases are limited to a number of poorly run companies. At the same time, they acknowledge that agencies lack proper legal management guidelines, while companies are under pressure to keep recruits or risk losing the money invested in their training.
Some 20,000 Cambodians in 2010 worked in Malaysia, Thailand and Japan legally, sending back $300 million in annual remittances, according to the Labor Ministry.
Many of these migrants work as maids and their employment is arranged by about 90 job-brokering agencies, which in the span of a few months prepare mostly rural young women for two years of overseas employment.
At a heavily fenced training center in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, a 35-year-old recruit died last week, while another trainee broke bones in both legs leaping from the building in an effort to escape what she described as imprisonment.
Also last week, a 36-year-old woman died at a Phnom Penh training center. Afterward, her husband complained he was barred from taking his wife outside for treatment after she fell ill.
Police maintained, however, that both deaths were due to “heart attacks.” In both cases, the agencies paid compensation to appease the women’s families.
Huy Pichsovann of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program said the centers were often badly run and that the illegal detention of workers was common.
“There are a lot of reports of people who tried to escape but were injured or died in the centers,” he said, adding that workers are also at risk of serious abuse by their foreign employers. “So far, the government tries to develop…recommendations for the companies, but these are not followed.”
Thea Sarom, general manager at D-Cam Supply Co Ltd, said his agency trained a total of 120 young women in cleaning, cooking and English-language programs last year during three-month training programs, in order to prepare them for employment in Malaysia, where they can earn about $200 per month.
Mr Sarom said his organization did not bar the girls from leaving and allowed them the weekends off, but he estimated that half of all agencies preferred to keep recruits inside training centers at all times.
“Most companies are very strict because of the loss of money,” he said, adding that if a recruit quits agencies could lose at least $1,000 spent on training, passports and legal documents.
Mr Sarom said it was important for agencies to make sure recruits are well and motivated, as the rural women in training often missed their families or boyfriends.
Larger agencies, he said, often fail to monitor how individual trainees feel and instead focus on keeping trainees indoors.
“They have a big amount of girls, they have a problem to control them, they don’t allow them to go home,” he said, adding that large agencies trained up to 1,000 girls a year.
“The big agencies are very careful on security…they have the big fence,” he said at his office, a house in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sangke commune without gates where trainees and their families walked in and out during an interview Tuesday.
Bien Neang, a 21-year-old trainee from Kompong Cham province, said she was happy with the training at D-Cam Supply so far.
“I stayed in the training for one month now. I decided to work in Malaysia for extra money to support my family,” she said.
An Bunhak, director of Top Manpower, one the larger recruitment agencies, acknowledged that bigger companies had difficulty knowing their recruits, but said this was a matter of company management. “If you are big, you need have big management capacity,” he said.
He also played down the financial losses of a recruit leaving, adding that contracts stipulate that if recruits do so “you have to pay the costs borne from your training, which costs $300, $400.”
Mr Bunhak, who is also the president of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, denied that some agencies detained recruits, adding that detained trainees should contact police or his association instead of trying to escape alone.
“I guarantee you we will be there in one hour, there is no need to do a stupid thing,” he said. Asked about the recent escape incident, Mr Bunhak said, “We are still investigating that.”
“If we find the company keeps them against their will, we will ban them,” he said. Mr Bunhak admitted, however, that there were still no legal guidelines for agencies on how to run programs and arrange overseas employment.
“Right now, we not yet have one standard to regulate them…. Different companies have different standards,” he said, adding that the Ministry of Labor was currently drafting a sub-decree to set out these guidelines.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the organization was highly concerned about the reports of “restrictions on movements and on communications with families” at maid training centers.
“They are having their vital rights violated: their right to move,” he said, adding that this was of particular concern as the numbers of Cambodian maids sent abroad was experiencing “a rapid increase.”
Mr Robertson said the reported violations “points to a lack of oversight of the agencies by the government,” adding that similar rights abuses in training centers had been reported in countries such as Indonesia, that have been sending maids abroad for a longer time.
Ministry of Labor officials said Monday that it was investigating the recent incidents. Officials could not be reached or declined to comment yesterday.