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Lifting maid ban proving a challenge

130109 02
Women return to Cambodia after working in dire conditions as maids in Malaysia in 2012. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

A lack of legal protections, insufficient commitment from the Malaysian government and an overworked, understaffed embassy are among the major obstacles to lifting the maid ban, according to an internal government report obtained yesterday.

Penned by the Ministry of Interior, the 12-page brief details a two-day fact-finding mission undertaken in December.

During meetings with the Malaysian government, local NGOs, recruitment agencies, maids, employers and Cambodian diplomats, the 21-member delegation sought to suss out the current situation.

In interviews with the 13 Cambodians living in rescue shelters, a slew of abuses were recorded including: “sexual exploitation, human trafficking, selling into to prostitution, syndicate[s], labour abuse, withholding of salary and forced labour.”

In one particularly brutal case, “a maid who was the victim of violence was attacked with a scissor many times on her body.”

“Another had her ear cut and another woman had her ears [violently twisted] cruelly.”

The report provides a rare, frank glimpse at the state of affairs in Malaysia, where a moratorium on sending new domestic labourers has been in place since October 2011 amid mounting concerns over rights abuses.

During meetings between the delegation – which included officials from the ministries of Labour, Women’s Affairs, and Justice, as well as police and military police – and its Malaysian counterparts, the latter sought to downplay problems, even as Cambodian officials urged reform.

“[Syuhaida Binti Abdul Wabhab Zen, deputy undersecretary of Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs] accepted there are abuses and exploitation on maids, but said cases were few if compared to the number of workers who get benefits from their jobs. She said that anti-government media and NGOs are exaggerating the situation.”

“Even though the number of victim cases are small if compared with the more than 30,000 workers in Malaysia, it should still not happen anymore,” responded Interior Ministry Secretary of State Chou Bun Eng, who led the joint government-civil society delegation.

“[While Malaysian laws are strong] in practice, there are some loopholes, so there are abuses. Cambodia requested Malaysian government to help rescue and protect Cambodian labourers who received physical, sexual and mental abuses as well as exploitation to their salary,” the report continued.

Recruiting companies, meanwhile, took a similar line, blaming media and NGOs for offering misleading information. A representative from the Malaysian Association of Employment Agencies told the delegation they have lost approximately $7 million since the moratorium and urged the Cambodian government to lift the ban.

“The government does not believe only the reports from media and NGOs, but we have received many complaints from victims… about severe physical, sexual and mental abuses as well as no salary until they finish their contract, and some are forced to continue their work illegally,” Bun Eng replied.

“The government must deal with that by banning the sending of maids until there is a proper solution,” she added.

At a meeting with the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, staffers suggested simple protections including bank accounts for workers, regular data from the Ministry of Labour detailing who had arrived, and changes in how recruitment fees were deducted from salaries.

They also spoke of severe staff shortages and insufficient resources, said Action Pour les Enfants country director Seila Samleang, who was on the delegation.

“There is a lack of manpower in the embassy. If you look at what they have done with the very few people in the embassy, it’s good work. They work on a lot of cases, but can’t be proactive about it,” he said.

Samleang and other non-government members of the delegation said they were impressed by the thoroughness of the trip and the government’s apparent commitment to improving the situation, but caution that it is far too premature to lift the ban.  

“If we have the proper instruments and mechanisms for workers it will be the right time to send them back, but right now it’s still in the process,” said Ros Va, national program co-ordinator for UN Women and a member of the delegation.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chhay Channyda at channyda.chhay@phnompenhpost.com
Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com

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