Human rights groups have welcomed the government’s temporary freeze on sending Cambodian domestic workers to Malaysia, but said the government should now push for further measures to protect recruits during pre-departure training and employment abroad.
The ban follows recurring reports of abuse and exploitation of workers by Malaysian employers and Cambodian recruitment agencies, including recent incidents that left several women dead and police raids that freed dozens of underage recruits.
Prime Minister Hun Sen verbally ordered the ban on Friday and signed an official order on Saturday to formalize it.
A copy of the government circular signed by Mr Hun Sen informed all ministries, institutes and police authorities “that from now on recruiting and training for sending women to work as maids in Malaysia is temporarily suspended” until further notice.
He wrote that the decision was made because “the government reviewed the sending of women who work as maids in Malaysia and some negative information has appeared.”
The order did not specify what changes in labor migration process to Malaysia the government was seeking before it would lift the ban. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan was unable to provide comment on the issue.
Cambodia’s ambassador to Malaysia, Princess Norodom Arunrasmy, told Malaysian news outlet The Star Online that the issue of abuse by Malaysian employers needed to be addressed before new maids would come.
“I do not expect the issue will be resolved soon, as we want to [have] everything in order before you can resume recruitment,” she told the outlet.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, said the moratorium was only a first step towards improving Cambodian domestic workers.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen is finally demonstrating concern about the plight of Cambodian migrant domestic workers, but a ban is only a temporary measure,” Jyotsna Poudyal, the group’s women’s rights research fellow, said in a statement.
“The government should introduce major reforms, in consultation with civil society, to improve regulation and monitoring of labor recruitment in Cambodia,” she said.
Indonesia has barred maids from migrating to Malaysia since June 2009 following repeated reports of abuse, and it has since been negotiating an agreement with Malaysia to protect its workers.
The ban spurred a surge in demand for Cambodian maids, 30,000 of who have since found employment there.
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said Cambodia should also negotiate an agreement with Malaysia to establish a legal framework for the protection of its workers there.
He said he was also concerned that the agencies, which reportedly still have 6,000 to 7,000 workers enrolled in pre-departure training, might now try to illegally recover the costs of migration arrangements and training from these recruits.
“I don’t think these maids have an obligation to compensate [agencies] because…it’s a government order, it’s not by the workers’ will,” he said.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said in a statement that the moratorium “provides the perfect opportunity to address the agencies’ problematic practices, including the prosecution of heads of agencies that are responsible for these crimes.”
She added that the Cambodian Embassy in Malaysia should meanwhile “step up and insure that abused women are provided services and swiftly repatriated back to Cambodia.”
Ly Hock Lao, director of Philimore recruitment agency and secretary-general of the Association for Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA), said the members of ACRA would meet with the Ministry of Labor today to discuss the implications of the ban. “If it [labor migration] is ordered closed, we will have many problems,” he said.
Chan Saroeut, director of Cech Co, an agency that is an ACRA member, said the sudden ban left it in a difficult situation, as the agency had incurred costs for training and travel arrangements for approximately 60 recruits it had contracted.
“We will lose a lot…. We spent a lot of money on food, training costs and [travel] documents,” he said. “Cambodian women will have no jobs to do.”
Malaysian Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Raja Saiful Ridzuwan declined to comment on the ban.