Roathana* runs her fingers through the ends of her plaited waist-length hair while taking a break from serving coffee at a roadside stall in central Phnom Penh. Wearing her hair this way is a minor luxury; while working as a migrant domestic worker in Malaysia about two years ago, her hair, like the rest of her life, was regulated by her employer.
“I had no rights. They even cut my hair off like a boy’s,” she said, breaking down in tears as she spoke.
Roathana, 30, says she was forced to work a minimum of 12 hours a day, seven days a week, without any time off. Her employer withheld her wages for months, confiscated her passport and mobile phone, banned her from contacting her family back home, and deprived her of enough food to sustain herself. When she finally fled to the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, officials told her she had to buy her own plane ticket home. She ended up staying at the embassy for months until an NGO stepped in, paying for her flight home and giving her rice and USD50 in cash on arrival.
She isn’t the only Cambodian woman whose dreams of finding success overseas went up in smoke. Keo Leakhena, who is still working in Malaysia, says she was recruited from her rural village outside Phnom Penh by a private broker promising wages of USD600 to USD1,000 per month. But the plan fell apart when she was abandoned by her broker after her arrival in Malaysia. She ended up working in a factory for a time, earning USD200 per month—a rate lower than the country’s stipulated minimum wage of USD250 per month. She was forced to find work elsewhere when the employer disappeared while still owing her months of wages. She now earns about USD50 a month as a part-time cleaner.
Leakhena says she has been fearing arrest since her passport expired months ago. She lacks confidence in her country’s ability to help her. “I’m so hesitant to seek help from the embassy, because I was told that if I don’t have money to buy a plane ticket myself, they can’t help,” she says over the phone. “I saw other workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia receive better treatment from their embassies.”
Sending women abroad
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with limited opportunities for earning a good income to support one’s family. For the women, the prospect of moving to wealthier countries and regions—Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong or the Middle East—to work as migrant domestic workers is an attractive one. But many such overseas ventures end in disappointment in the absence of adequate protections and support.
Cambodia enforced a ban in 2011 on women traveling to work as domestic workers in Malaysia following reports of deaths in the custody of both employers and the authorities. But the ban was highly ineffective, and reportedly routinely flouted by recruiters. The Cambodian government announced in January that it would resume sending women to Malaysia under a “new system” in June, despite persisting concerns of abuse. At the signing of an agreement between the two countries listing new protections for domestic workers, Jeffrey Foo, President of the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies, toldThePhnom Penh Post that he expected 20,000 Cambodians to arrive each year.
The new deal is part of a wider push to send workers abroad amid an increasing demand for migrant domestic workers in wealthier countries. A handful of Cambodian domestic workers were sent to Hong Kong as part of a pilot program in August, while Lebanon has recently been proposed as a new destination country. The Cambodian government has promised new protections, such as providing smartphones to workers and regular workplace visits from embassy officials.
Heng Sour, the spokesman for the Labour Minister, did not respond to requests for comment. Government officials have previously told the media that efforts to send domestic workers abroad are motivated by the desire to provide employment for Cambodians and to help neighbours with their labour shortages.
“[T]he Cambodian government elites and their relatives who own labour export companies make massive profits off the backs of these poor women”
Rights groups aren’t convinced by this line of reasoning. Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the government’s motivation has more to do with lining the recruiters’ pockets. Reports in the media have also revealed that at least two of the agencies licensed to send domestic workers abroad are owned by relatives of senior government officials, prompting accusations of nepotism and corruption.
“The important thing to understand is that the labour-sending system is self-perpetuating, because the Cambodian government elites and their relatives who own labour export companies make massive profits off the backs of these poor women,” he explains in an email. “They claim they are helping the women, but the reality is that they are sending them overseas with massive debts from exploitative recruitment and no help if the women face physical or sexual abuse.”
“The recruiters have very good relationships with high-ranking officials”
On top this, there is a growing trend of Cambodian migrant workers using private brokers rather than legitimate agencies, according to anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai. Although these brokers cost less, they tend to dodge regulations and basic responsibilities. Dy Hoya, programme officer at Cambodian labour rights group Central—which paid for Roathana’s repatriation—says that the organisation regularly receives complaints of serious misconduct by recruiters, but that it is difficult to hold them accountable.
“The recruiters have very good relationships with high-ranking officials, and also sometimes relatives of high-ranking officials also make business off recruitment agencies,” he explains, adding that it is very difficult for victims to find justice when they are up against powerful elites. This is exemplified by the lack of complaints actually filed with the courts, he says, proving how little confidence ordinary Cambodians have in their country’s justice system.
Robertson says that Cambodia has “neither the political will nor effective implementation systems to protect the women,” despite having plenty of good examples to follow. “Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have all devised more effective systems to protect their migrants when they go overseas, so the ways to do this are not a mystery,” he says, adding that Cambodia cuts corners on labour protections to compete against other labour-exporting countries.
This became evident during a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia in July 2017. The Cambodian embassy in Kuala Lumpur was quickly inundated with Cambodian workers who had been left stranded without proper paperwork by their brokers or employers, and was forced to admit that it did not have the budget to repatriate the women.
Joseph Arnhold, a spokesperson for Chab Dai’s case support team, tells New Naratif that apart from the agencies’ obligations, which aren’t always respected, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Cambodia and the host country is the only other real protection mechanism in place.
But even MoUs and local laws might not be enough, such as in Hong Kong, where migrant domestic workers are protected under local labour laws. Despite this, Tina Chan of the Hong Kong-based anti-trafficking group Stop Trafficking of People (STOP), says that Cambodian workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation: “When they are unfamiliar with the language, culture and unaware of their own rights, their ignorance can contribute to the conditions in which labour exploitation occurs.”
Even further from home: to the Middle East
Like the receiving countries in Southeast Asia, wealthier countries in the Middle East boast higher salaries, and are therefore an attractive destination to Cambodian domestic workers looking for superior incomes. Religion is also a factor for some women; most of the Cambodian domestic workers who go to Saudi Arabia belong to the ethnic Cham Muslim community in Cambodia—a minority group in a country where about 97% of the population are Buddhists. For them, working in Saudi Arabia is also seen as a spiritual opportunity, says Farina So, a Cham Muslim researcher.
“To some Muslim women, for example, with aspirations to go to hajj [the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca]—there is a high chance for them [to attend], given the distance and cost, while working in Saudi Arabia,” she says.
According to Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, the motivation behind sending maids to the Middle East is purely to reduce a “surplus” of Cambodian workers who can’t find employment inside the country. Dismissing concerns that the women wouldn’t be adequately protected, he says that the government had addressed previous labour protection shortages, including repatriation funding, and that Cambodia would use international labour conventions outlined by the UN’s International Labour Organisation.
Recruitment agencies “need to deposit USD100,000 [with] the receiving government. From there we can use this money to intervene, and the government will help repatriate the workers back home through this mechanism,” Siphan says.
“We prepare [workers] better this time, such as providing them with proper vocational training before departure,” he adds.
[T]he lack of an embassy to provide assistance left [two women] stranded for over a decade
The decision to send Cambodian women to countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticised, with some arguing that the entire system is a no-win situation for those most greatly in need. “What’s astonishing is a country like Lebanon, which is awash in desperate Syrian refugees seeking work, would think it needs to import Cambodians from around the world to do domestic work,” says HRW’s Robertson. “Something is seriously wrong if that is the preferred model, and the costs involved will sadly place a premium on maximising the exploitation of the Cambodian woman or girl who is sent to take up such a placement.”
Reports paint a grim picture of Lebanon’s treatment of migrant domestic workers: the Middle Eastern country excludes migrant workers from basic labour law protections, and its highly restrictive sponsorship system binds domestic workers to their employers, leaving workers trapped in abusive or exploitative situations. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that one migrant domestic worker was dying each week—mostly from suicide or attempts to escape unbearable situations.
It’s no surprise that organisations like Chab Dai worry about the Cambodian government’s plans to send women there; the country doesn’t even have an embassy in Lebanon to support women who run into trouble. Siphan, the government spokesman, says that consulates will be “on call” to assist workers in receiving countries where there is no Cambodian embassy, ensuring Cambodians will be looked after.
But the experiences of two Cambodians in Saudi Arabia indicate otherwise. When they fled their abusive employers, the lack of an embassy to provide assistance left them stranded for over a decade.
One of the women, 29-year-old Sos Rotus, who had been stuck in the country for 12 years, was finally repatriated in August after a Facebook video of her pleading for help went viral. The second woman returned home, after 13 years, in January this year.
Rotus, who is a Cham Muslim, was just 16 when she was recruited by an agency owned by a prominent Muslim leader and then-government official in her rural hometown, with the promise of high wages. She says she was abandoned by the agency and worked in slave-like conditions in Saudi Arabia without pay, banned from contacting the outside world. When she fled her employer, the police passed her onto another one, who continued the abuse. There was no one to turn to for help. The Cambodian government did not have an MoU with Saudi Arabia at the time, and denies ever having licensed the firm who sent Rotus to the Gulf state, despite official documents obtained by media showing otherwise.
Cambodia signed an MoU with Saudi Arabia in 2016 to signal its intent to officially begin supplying the country with domestic workers. The process has since stalled and workers cannot yet be legally sent, but Cambodian women have been trickling into the country via illegal channels for years. The government says that since these workers have gone without official authorisation, “[a]ny individual who goes there on their own will, they have to bear their own responsibility.”
It’s a statement that might not come as a surprise to women like Roathana, Leakhena or Rotus—they’d always been on their own.
*Not her real name
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Hannah Hawkins is a freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Phnom Penh. She is a research consultant for workers' rights NGO Solidarity Center, and a former Cambodia Daily editor and reporter.
Len Leng is a Cambodian freelance journalist, photographer and translator based in Phnom Penh. She has previously worked at The Cambodia Daily and Voice of America (Khmer Service).