Two weeks ago today, 17-year-old Phally stepped off a bus from Phnom Penh, walked to the statue of Ta Dambong in Battambang town, and broke down. After near-daily abuse, she and another domestic worker had managed to stage an escape from the tycoon’s villa that had served as their prison for 10 years.
The case of two teenagers who fled – covered in scars and bruises – the mansion of tycoon Veng Lyphytech was extreme. But, noted social workers, it is hardly unique.
Since 1994, the Cambodian government has designated today, March 8, as a paid national holiday in recognition of International Women’s Day.
But domestic workers in Cambodia, mostly female, still benefit little from either the official day off or the broader rights and positive change for women it represents.
And although abuse of Cambodian maids abroad has drawn significant attention from the government and media in recent years, the troubles of domestic workers within the Kingdom’s own borders have been largely hidden from the eyes of the public, concealed behind walls and unprotected by labour legislation.
In the case of the two teenagers, whose full names have not been released to the public: “Whenever they could not finish all the tasks in the building, the wife of the family always beat them,” said Hang Sayon, investigation team leader with anti-trafficking group SISHA, which is managing the girls’ case.
“Sometimes she slapped them, and she tortured them with the electric rods, and she punched them on the back, on their legs, their thighs. And sometimes she used the pliers to pinch them on the legs.”
Sayon said that according to one of the victims “there were only the two girls working there, so they needed to do all the things in the house, such as cook, clean, do laundry. They had to give a bath to 19 dogs every day.”
At least one of the girls appears to have developed an ongoing mental problem because the tycoon’s wife had repeatedly beaten her on the head with a broomstick, Sayon said.
Although the case is terrible, one positive upshot has been increased awareness of such issues in the country – one of a few recent developments that offers hope for progress, SISHA operations director Eric Meldrum and representatives of other rights groups said this week.
“This story touches a lot of people, and I think that’s why in social media it had such big hits here,” said Meldrum. “A lot of people have family or relatives that work in big houses in places in Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville or Siem Reap.
“There’s probably thousands of children, probably tens of thousands of these children working in these houses.”
While most domestic workers in Cambodia do not face conditions as extreme as the two girls currently with SISHA, they have few of the protections and rights promised to garment workers, hotel staff and others employed in the formal sector, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre.
After paying lip service to the domestic worker protections in International Labour Organization Convention 189 – including paid leave, regular hours, a day off and a minimum wage – the Cambodian government still has not ratified the 2011 convention.
This leaves domestic workers often working more than 12-hour days, Monday through Sunday, on whatever pay the house’s owner decides is best, said Tola.
The Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Women’s Affairs routinely have not responded to inquiries by rights groups about the current standing on ILO 189. Questions posed to both ministries by the Post this week have gone unanswered.
Leaders of the newly formed Cambodian Domestic Workers’ Network (CDWN) think they can help.
Through workshops in Phnom Penh held several times a month and a series of outreach events leading up to International Women’s Day today, CDWN has been educating domestic workers about their rights and drawing in growing numbers of new members, including 32 in the past month, said CDWN program officer Chum Chamm.
President Vun Samphors said yesterday that 140 domestic workers had joined the network since it began last November.
New CDWN member Sok Thea, 23, said she had joined the organisation because she was discontented with her work for six years as a maid in Phnom Penh, where she currently looks after the family’s baby and does housework from 6am until 6:30pm every day.
“I have to stay inside the house all day and do not have much freedom to rest, because I am afraid my boss will blame me,” she said, adding that she received $65 per month for her salary and an additional $20 per month for rent.
Currently based in Phnom Penh, the CDWN hopes to attract 500 new members by the end of the year and expand in the two following years to Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
But the problem of domestic workers’ public invisibility is another faced by the CDWN as it seeks to attract new members – especially those in the most abusive situations.
“Sometimes they know about us but can’t join the meeting because of working seven days a week,” said Chamm. “They have to lie to the house owner to go. They tell them they’re going to the provinces to visit family. Otherwise, the house owner would be angry and not allow them to go, because they are afraid they would demand their rights.”
CDWN Vice President Yim Sothy, 37, said she well understood the pressures that might discourage domestic workers from joining the organisation.
More than decade ago, while working as a domestic worker in the house of a high-ranking government official, Sothy was sexually harassed and almost raped several times by the official and his relatives.
“The brother of the official attempted to rape me many times, but luckily my boss’s daughter helped me, because I was sleeping with her in her room while the man came in,” she said.
SISHA’s Meldrum said the police’s ongoing investigation of the family of tycoon Veng Lyphytech gave hope for an end to the impunity of well-connected families in such abuse cases. Already, there is an arrest warrant out for Lyphytech’s wife, Ly Pov, who is believed to have been the principal perpetrator.
“If one of the richest families in Cambodia can be prosecuted for this, then anybody could be able to get prosecuted for this,” Meldrum said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR