As another Cambodian maid who travelled to Singapore under a pilot scheme between the two countries prepares to return home this week alleging labour rights abuses, recruitment agencies in Phnom Penh continue to look for more women to sign up for the overseas work.
Speaking from Singapore yesterday, 36-year-old Teang Phanna detailed a year and a half of mistreatment she endured at the hands of her employers, whom she accuses of withholding her wages and forcing her to work seven-day weeks.
The allegations are the latest blot on the scheme, which was launched in 2013 in a bid to test whether Cambodian maids are suitable for Singapore’s large foreign domestic worker market.
The program – which emphasised strict training in an effort to avoid the well-publicised abuse of Cambodian maids in Malaysia – has failed to attract the desired 400 candidates, and has already seen a number of women return home.
“I had to work from 5am until 10 pm; I did all the household chores; I worked without any break,” said Phanna, who’s been staying for more than a week with Singapore-based NGO Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).
Phanna said if she forgot to close windows or doors, or bring water to the family while they were watching television, she would be woken up at 1am to complete the tasks.
“My mistress and her mother blamed me for everything,” she said.
She also claimed to have been left undernourished.
“I asked them for more food, but they said that I shouldn’t have to eat so much because I don’t have to do any heavy work. They said, ‘Stop asking for more, you may eat only what you are given.’”
Phanna, who previously worked as a maid in Malaysia, moved to Singapore in March 2014 after hearing a radio advertisement from recruitment company Philimore Cambodia.
When she contacted Philimore – which has been linked to a number of cases involving the exploitation of maids – to voice her concerns, she was told to “continue working”.
“They said it would help to solve the problem. They took sides with the employer,” she said.
Independent attempts to quit the job were thwarted by debt bondage, while hopes of escape were made difficult “because I knew nobody and I had no money”, Phanna said.
Phanna eventually managed to flee her employers earlier this month and sought shelter with HOME.
Jolovan Wham, the organisation’s executive director, said that after 17 months of receiving no salary and no time off, HOME had “provided assistance to her and she has got her money back”.
She plans to return to Cambodia on Wednesday.
Phanna is not the first person to have abandoned the two-year contract awarded under the pilot scheme.
John Gee, spokesman of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said the NGO offered assistance to six Cambodian workers last year.
“The main complaints were of underpayment of salaries, but there were two cases where workers alleged that they had been sexually molested,” he said.
And, he added, many more people were likely to have sought help from other NGOs, agencies, the government, “or simply tried to manage until they could go home – this suggests quite a high level of dissatisfaction among the workers, considering that there were just a few hundred of them in total.”
But despite this, Ung Seang Rithy, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA), told the Post previously that the two-year pilot scheme had been “extended” to allow recruiters to find more workers.
Speaking yesterday, she said that the “sending of Cambodian maids to Singapore is not over yet”.
“We are still recruiting more, but . . . it is difficult because the conditions [for acceptance] are high. They need maids with a grade eight” education, she said.
Lao Lyhock, director of Philimore, could not be reached.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, meanwhile, said it was “still monitoring the progress of the pilot program”, but did not respond to questions about details of the alleged extension.
In Cambodia, concerns remained about the secrecy surrounding the pilot program.
“We tried to get the contract [between Cambodia and Singapore] . . . but we’re still waiting,” said opposition lawmaker Son Chhay. “I would like to see more transparency to ensure that the process is being done in a humane way.”