A new report on government restrictions on labor migration says Cambodia’s 2011 ban on sending maids to Malaysia may not have dented the traffic and possibly put the women at even greater risk of abuse.
Since the ban, Cambodian women have continued returning from Malaysia with claims of unpaid wages, beatings, rape and even death.
Released today by the U.N. and the International Labor Organization to coincide with Domestic Workers Day, “Protected or put in harm’s way?” takes a close look at two recent government prohibitions on sending maids abroad in the region—Cambodia’s ban on Malaysia and Burma’s 2014 global ban.
The “restrictions on women’s migration have not changed migration or work environments to make them safer or rights protective for all people regardless of gender, which ultimately is the aim of both country of origin and country of destination stakeholders,” it says.
While doing nothing to ease the domestic pressures driving the women abroad, “restrictions on women’s migration in fact heighten the risk of exploitation in many cases,” it adds.
Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed the ban on work in Malaysia amid mounting reports that Cambodian maids were being abused by both the local recruitment agencies sending them abroad and the Malaysian households for whom they went to work.
Though the two countries agreed in principle to lift the ban in December 2015, signing a joint memorandum of understanding, it stayed in place while they continued to hash out the details of a new deal that would help keep the women safe.
The Labor Ministry had continued to insist that the ban remained in force well into this year, although a directive signed by Mr. Hun Sen in December, obtained by the Daily last week, shows that it ended in January.
Drawing from other research and fresh interviews with government officials, recruitment agencies and returned maids, the report says the ban may have done little, if anything, to stem the flow of maids.
“While the bans have resulted in a demonstrable reduction in the number of women migrating for domestic work through regular channels, particularly from Cambodia to Malaysia, it is not possible to say if this constitutes a net reduction in numbers, as there is no conclusive data on the use of irregular channels,” it says. “Anecdotal evidence indicates, however, that there has not been a reduction in migration.”
In 2010, the year before Cambodia imposed its ban, the government registered 11,918 maids at work in Malaysia. It has registered zero in the years since.
Malaysia, however, registered more than 3,000 Cambodian maids last year. The year before that, a Christian Aid study estimated that some 10,000 Cambodians maids were working there.
The discrepancy highlights one of the main flaws the report finds with such bans: The countries receiving the maids often act as if they don’t exist, knowing full well that they do.
Malaysian officials interviewed for the new report last year said they were continuing to issue the foreign maids permits, insisting that the ban was not bilateral and arguing that the women continued to arrive.
The report also describes Cambodia’s own enforcement of its ban as “fluid.”
It says the Labor Ministry noted in September, months before Mr. Hun Sen’s unpublicized directive lifting the ban, “that recruitment agencies are already sending domestic workers to Malaysia under the [memorandum] despite the lack of established procedures.”
Maids interviewed for the report said the bans had made working conditions abroad both better and worse—better when employers try harder to hold on to the maids they have by treating them better, worse when they make it harder for them to leave. It says some employers take advantage of the “accountability gap” such bans create by threatening to withhold wages or forcing maids to extend their contracts.
One Cambodian interviewed for the report after returning home from a stint working as a maid in Malaysia during the ban described mistreatment. “Within three months of going to Malaysia, I was tortured and wanted to come back to Cambodia. But I was sent to an agency office in Malaysia, and they told me that even if I was killed, no one would know.”
In August, the Daily reported on two recently returned maids who said that after fleeing their abusive employers, they ended up at a Malaysian government detention center where they saw guards severely beating fellow detainees, some of whom later died at the center or a nearby hospital.
An investigation by Malaysian authorities prompted by the story found one death from an unspecified illness, though there was no postmortem and closed circuit cameras at the facility were reportedly not operating during the time of the alleged abuses.
To date Cambodia has refused to provide any details of the safeguards it has been negotiating with Malaysia and will not release the memorandum they signed in December 2015.
The U.N. and ILO were both consulted in drafting the memorandum, and in the new report say a copy they reviewed lacked key rights provisions.
It says the memorandum gives employers the right to deny workers a rest day and fails to specify how much rest time they must have per day or how often they can communicate with their families. It also bars them from marrying and from migrating or living with their families in Malaysia without permission.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour yesterday denied that maids were being sent to Malaysia.
“There are not any maids sent to Malaysia. If you have any proof, please let us know,” he said.
The spokesman’s remark contradicted the Ministry of Labor’s own admission in September, as cited in the new report. Over the past several months the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also issued more than one news release about repatriating maids from Malaysia who were sent abroad by unspecified companies.
Mr. Sour ignored questions about the report’s claims that the ban may not have reduced the number of Cambodians working as maids in Malaysia or that they may be in more danger now than before.
He also did not provide a clear explanation for why he continued to claim the ban was in place after Mr. Hun Sen’s December directive.
The memorandum “is concluded but the technical agreement is not yet finalized,” he said.
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