If the recruitment agencies want to go legit they
have to stop providing loans, it’s as simple as that
One week after they arrived at a maid training centre in Malaysia last year, two teenage Cambodian girls say their intake of recruits, fed up with working conditions, tied their instructor to a chair and fled the premises.
The girls say they had been forced to work from 7am to 5pm with just a three-minute lunch break, performing a monotonous training programme before going home to study English before bed.
Their instructor, they say, had devised a spirit-crushing regime, making the girls wash every floor, surface and utensil in the centre, then wash the same items again for days on end.
“I wondered why the office was small, yet my boss ordered me to clean it again and again,” says Soy, who has requested her real name be concealed.
“The trainer did not hit me, they just blamed me. I could not endure working in the office so much.”
Soy and two other girls with her were under the minimum legal working age in Cambodia – 18-years-old – and well below the required 21 to work in Malaysia, according to photocopies of their birth certificates obtained from the rights group Licadho and seen by The Post.
The documents show the girls were aged between 15 and 16 at the time of departure – an assertion that the company that sent them there, Ung Rithy Group Co Ltd, strongly denies.
Outside the offices of the labour company Soy says her, and 12 other trainees, found themselves stranded with no idea where they were, no passports and no way of calling home.
Stumbling upon a church, the girls say they took refuge and began a long process involving the anti-human trafficking group Tenaganita, the Cambodian embassy in Malaysia and a lawyer who ultimately would lead to the repatriation of the three girls while their other colleagues were sent back to work.
Conditions like those described by the girls echo a recurring theme documented in a litany of complaints filed to rights groups and police by women working in Cambodia’s labour-recruitment industry.
Aegile Fernandez, anti-human trafficking coordinator of Tenaganita, says her organisation has rescued 55 Cambodian women and girls from abusive conditions at different firms since April last year, at least 20 of whom were underage.
But Fernandez says these efforts have been hamstrung by an alarming aspect of what she has been told by the Cambodian embassy in Malaysia is government policy.
“The embassy tells us that it is a policy of the Cambodian government that the [rescued] girls must be sent back to the agency,” she says.
“From our experience once the victims go back to the agency, they are abused by the agency and then they are re-trafficked back to Malaysia.”
The Cambodian embassy was repeatedly called to confirm or deny that it advocated such a policy but officials did not make themselves available for comment.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denies any such policy exists.
“In principle the embassy has to cooperate with the company to repatriate them back to Cambodia, not to send them back to the company for further employment,” he said.
“The Cambodian embassy in Malaysia, after rescuing them from the abusive places, cooperates with the respective country in order to repatriate them to their homes in Cambodia.”
Under no circumstances, he says, should a worker who is underage or who has allegedly been subjected to abuse be returned to the organisation which sent them to work, even if the company has paid for the return ticket.
“When they are repatriated into Cambodia the social affairs department or anti-human trafficking police take them back to their provinces,” he said.
When Soy and the girls arrived back in Phnom Penh on June 16, 2010, staff members from both rights group Licadho and Ung Rithy Group were waiting to pick them up.
Both sought to take custody of the girls.
Licadho argues that as underage workers sent to Malaysia by Ung Rithy Group, they could not be sent back to the very firm that had recruited the girls in the first place.
However Ung Seang Rithy, president of Ung Rithy Group, denied yesterday the girls were underage while employed by her company.
“My company has never had even one underage worker, so the organisation has to find the evidence for me to show that my company has underage girls,” she said.
“I don’t accept workers into our company if there are not parents proclaiming in front of us that their children are aged 21, and we have the documents that express that from the authorities.”
It is a claim An Bunhak, the director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, backs up.
“I do not accept that they were underage because we have the documents to prove that the girls are of enough age,” he said, arguing it was the parents who provided identity documents verifying their ages – a claim the girls dispute.
Those documents could not be forwarded yesterday because his office was closed for Khmer New Year, he said.
An Bunhak also says that because Ung Rithy Group paid for the girls’ travel, a claim he has backed up with copies of their flight itineraries, they rightfully should have been returned to the company.
He alleges the Licadho staffers who were waiting at the airport to pick up the girls did not have appropriate identification, a claim Licadho rejects, leading him to write a letter to authorities accusing Licadho of “kidnapping”.
Both An Bunhak and Ung Seang Rithy also deny the girls escaped abusive conditions but rather became embroiled in near-lethal fights that almost landed them in jail.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division says it is ludicrous to suggest that by paying for tickets the company had a justifiable claim to take custody of the girls.
“Their argument that ‘we paid, we have the right to take’ displays a complete lack of understanding from Ung Rithy about human rights,” he said.
That the age of the girls remains contested nearly a year after they returned, raises important questions about the arcane lines of responsibility, regulation and monitoring of an industry that propels its recruits, underage or otherwise, into foreign territory.
As the Cambodian Ministry of Labour prepares a new draft sub-decree to update 1995 legislation regulating the labour-recruitment industry, rights groups have been left in the dark about what shape the legislation will actually take. Only an early draft of the new sub-decree has been released publicly.
If that is any indication of the final form the legislation will take, then key measures that groups such as Licadho, Adhoc and South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities have called for to effectively regulate the industry will not be included.
One of those, rights groups, such as Licadho and HRW, stress, must be a mechanism to prevent trainees from entering debt bondage.
Upfront loans offered by labour-recruitment firms to poor Cambodian families desperate for some financial relief can be an almost irresistible temptation, one that Soy’s mother says she succumbed to despite harbouring significant concerns about her daughter’s welfare abroad.
Before the girls left Cambodia Soy’s mother, who also wishes not to be identified, said Ung Rithy Group lent her US$1,000 – money the company is alleged to have demanded back along with expenses spent during the girls training after their escape.
“Licadho helped me because if we went to the company I would have to pay US$2,500 to them. I did not pay because Licadho helped us,” she said.
Ung Seang Rithy rejected this claim.
“There are difference cases in which we can use our right to demand [money], but I just want to clarify that the Ung Rithy Company has never asked or demanded the money from those workers,” she said.
Hou Vuthy, deputy general director at the Ministry of Labour, says it is illegal for recruitment firms grant the families of trainees upfront loans, unless the money is a provision to cover expenses related to the girls departure.
“It is illegal if the companies give the money to the trainees, but if the companies give money and don’t demand it back from the workers, it is okay,” he says.
Matthieu Pellerin, a consultant for Licadho, said that before trainees even enter the physical premises, such loans are tantamount to human trafficking.
“It’s a very simple form of debt bondage but it also falls into the definition of trafficking,” he said.
“If the recruitment agencies want to go legit they have to stop providing loans, it’s as simple as that.”
Prosecuting directors of labour firms who engage in unlawful recruitment practices and revoking licences, he says, are crucial first steps that need to be taken if Cambodia is serious about addressing an escalating problem.
According to information that Licadho say they received from the Ministry of Information, 53 minors between the ages of 13 and 17 were rescued from labour-recruitment companies last year.
Of the 53, 16 were rescued from Ung Rithy Group Co Ltd’s Kandal centre, 22 from VC Manpower Co Ltd and seven from Champa Manpower Co Ltd, Licadho says.
Again Ung Seang Rithy denies this allegation, while representatives of Champa Manpower were unaware of the case or unavailable for comment, as were representatives of VC Manpower.
At a seminar of regional parliamentarians on labour trafficking earlier this month, Chou Bun Eng, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior, confirmed 55 underage trainees had been discovered in Cambodian labour-recruitment centres in the past year.
“We arrested eight suspects from the companies and rescued the underage workers and allowed them to return to their parents,” she said.
She was unable to recall the names of those arrested or the companies they had come from.
Eric Meldrum, operations director of South East Asian Investigations in Social and Humanitarian Activities, who works with Cambodian authorities to investigate cases of trafficking in labour recruitment, confirmed police were conducting serious investigations.
“My experience of working with the [anti] human-trafficking police is that they do actually do proper investigations in these cases,” he said, but while he was aware of prosecution in regard to labour trafficking, there had not been many.
And even if judicial authorities and regulatory bodies are able to take concrete action against labour-recruitment companies that act unlawfully in Cambodia, it is no guarantee that the basic rights of workers in Malaysia will be respected, Malaysian Senator Firdaus Haji Abdullah said.
He said Malaysia has been swamped with so many migrant workers, some 1.8 million in 2010, that authorities are simply unable to implement proper regulation of the industry, despite the existence of legislation to do so.
“Put it this way, you have a few bad apples here and there but again I keep on telling you [about] the huge number … I mean when you have 1.8 million people, less than 100 can cause a problem,” he said, referring to reported cases of abuse.
But banning migrant workers, he said, is no solution.
“[If] you stop issuing visas they come illegally. That’s what I’m saying: for every legally registered worker there is another illegal [worker].
“You can sum it up this way: migrant workers are an expanding problem faced with a shrinking solution.”