By Irwin Loy
PHNOM PENH, Mar 19, 2011 (IPS) - Cambodia’s fledgling domestic worker export industry continues to come under scrutiny amid allegations that women have been forcibly detained in privately run training centres.
Local media in this Southeast Asian country reported that one woman died this month at a labour recruitment firm in Phnom Penh, while another trainee broke her legs attempting to escape. The firm has denied any wrongdoing in the woman’s death. But the controversy is a sign that the government’s belated efforts to regulate the rapidly expanding industry have fallen short.
"It’s so sad that the problems are still happening," Moeun Tola, the head of the labour programme at the advocacy group Community Legal Education Centre, told IPS.
The country’s main opposition party is also weighing in on the issue. Parliamentarians with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party visited the training centre in question this month. Member of Parliament Son Chhay said he was alarmed by the tall gates and barbed wire at the facility, which he said gave "the impression of imprisonment".
"Local authorities and police ignored the law that forbids detention against one’s will," Chhay wrote in a letter to Malaysia’s ambassador and provided to IPS and other media this week. "There was no sign that the local authorities even attempted to defend the rights of trainees who are detained against their will. There are tremendous pressures on the young women to comply with the rules of the company."
Abuse claims made by domestic workers began to make waves last July, when stories of women who said they fled training centres hit the local newspapers. In multiple cases, the women reported they had signed up to be trained as domestic workers, but were not permitted to leave the training centres unless they paid large sums of money. Others claimed they escaped from cramped or squalid living conditions.
The headlines shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the industry. The Cambodian Labour Ministry warned recruitment firms to clean up their act and announced new guidelines in August. The guidelines, released ahead of a promise to update the law governing the industry, advised firms not to allow their trainees to fall into debt. The guidelines also contained general statements prohibiting "detention" and "child labour".
The problem, Tola explains, is enforcing the rules. Multiple agencies have been found to be training girls younger than 18 - the minimum age for such work is 21. But inspections of the training centres are rare and there are few consequences for operators found to be flouting the rules, Tola says.
"I think the authorities know these things are happening, but they just close their eyes," he added.
Roughly 30 firms are licensed by the country’s Ministry of Labour to train and send domestic workers abroad. The majority of the women are bound for Malaysia, which is struggling to meet voracious demand for live-in maids after Indonesia put a moratorium on its citizens taking such jobs in Malaysia following publicised cases of abuse.
Malaysia has set its sights on countries like Cambodia to fill demand. Malaysia last year issued almost 25,000 work visas to Cambodian domestic workers, according to the Malaysian Embassy here. That’s well above the roughly 5,300 visas granted across all sectors in 2008.
Cambodia has been just as eager to send its citizens abroad. Job options for many low-income women here are in the country’s chief economic driver - its garment-manufacturing sector. But the minimum wage in garment factories is 61 dollars per month, much less than the 200 to 300 dollars per month women are often promised as domestic workers.
As a result, recruitment firms operating in Cambodia have jumped to take advantage of the market.
Several agencies have been known to recruit women in poor rural areas. They offer cash lump-sum payments and bags of rice to families in order to convince them to sign up their daughters - but the money must be repaid.
Tensions between the trainees and their employers surface when women ask to leave their gated facilities - often the companies will refuse or demand money to allow women to leave, afraid they will run away without paying their debts, according to rights advocates and industry representatives.
The government is expected to issue a new law governing recruitment firms this year - replacing the vague existing regulations, which are more than 15 years old.
An Bunhak, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, said he has advised the government to prohibit companies from offering large loans to its trainees.
Bunhak says stricter rules will help smooth out problems in the industry.
"We think everyone must follow the regulations. Once everybody understands, it will be okay," Bunhak told IPS. "We want the rules to protect our migrant workers."
While authorities implement the new regulations, however, this month’s case shows that potential domestic workers continue to face problems even before they leave the country.
Heang Sophara signed up to be trained as a domestic worker last year. "I wasn’t earning much money farming. I hoped that I could make more money in Malaysia to support my family, even if I had to be away from them for two years," she told IPS.
But when she started hearing stories of mistreatment, she decided to withdraw her application. She claims the agency demanded that she pay 900 dollars to get out of her contract, even though she never received any loans or underwent training. The case remains unresolved.
"I get more scared when I hear about the problems," Sophara said. "Now I just want to stay home."