The Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies announced a temporary ban on the sending of all domestic workers to Malaysia amidst another under-age trainee scandal – this one involving a firm owned by the wife of a senior member of Cambodia’s international police department.
On Monday, the Ministry of Labour gave recruitment firms permission to send already contracted domestic workers with travel documents to Malaysia, contradicting a blanket suspension announced by Prime Minster Hun Sen three days prior.
But ACRA president An Bunhak announced at a press conference yesterday that his association would effectively regulate itself – halting all transfers to Malaysia in the wake of yet another labour firm raid that involved allegations of forced detention and underage recruitment.
“This … is not regarding consultation with the Ministry of Labour or the Ministry of Interior. This is our decision, because we need to protect our face, our reputation to the public, and we don’t want just a few people to try to [discredit] us,” he said.
An Bunhak said 47 member firms of ACRA would now be subjected to inspections starting with his own company, Top Manpower, and association chairman Lao Ly Hok’s firm, Philimore, which is no stranger to abuse and exploitation scandals.
Lao Ly Hok told the press conference that trainees will be now given four options: Take a job in Malaysia outside of domestic work; fill a position in Thailand; work for a company in Cambodia; or leave the agency and go home with no financial penalty.
“So we [leave this] to the worker, she must have the freedom to choose, free, pay nothing,” he said, adding that individual firms would have to pay compensation to partner organisations and individual employers in Malaysia.
Firms will not be allowed to recuperate an estimated US$600 spent on training each domestic worker.
Mouen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, said that while he welcomed the move, he was concerned that if trainees choose to go into other industries in Malaysia, they could still be subject to exploitation and abuse.
“I’d just like to highlight, as long as the Ministry of Labour is still sleeping, if they switch from one industry to another … the improvement will not happen unless the law enforcement is still in place effectively,” he said.
After a long battle to have the temporary ban enforced, opposition Sam Rainsy Party MP Mu Sochua was overjoyed by news of the suspension, but questioned why it had to come from ACRA, not the Ministry of Labour.
“Who’s calling the shots here?” she asked.
“I congratulate him [An Bunhak] for taking a step faster than the Ministry of Labour, which has a mandate to protect human rights and the welfare of all women. So if An Bunhak can clean up his house, let’s work with him.” Labour Ministry secretary of state Oum Mean declined to comment yesterday, and Ministry of Interior officials could not be reached.
The move comes following allegations of the gang rape of a domestic worker trying to escape in Malaysia, suspicious deaths in the houses of employers and raids in Cam-bodia that have uncovered under-age recruits in three training centres in just the past month.
On Wednesday, a Post reporter discovered 47 crying women at an SKMM Investment Group facility in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district who said they had been forcibly detained and, in some cases, provided falsified documents to conceal their true ages.
A man named Tan Kimseang claimed the company belonged to him and denied all allegations against the firm.
But yesterday, he changed his mind, telling a reporter he was merely a “special assistant” and husband of the firm’s owner, Nhem Sothea, adding that he could not own the company because he was deputy chief of the International Police Depart-ment at the Ministry of Interior.
“I have never taken money from maids, but I give the money to the maids. I have never allowed under-age girls to work. Before we allow them to work, we check on their identity card, family book,” he said.
Several trainees told the Post yesterday that SKMM falsified documents to conceal their ages, and Keo Thea, Police chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Depart-ment said two under-age trainees were found in raids on SKMM facilities.
“On Wednesday night, we brought seven suspected maids for questioning to find out their real age, and we found two maids aged from 15 to 16 years, and another 20 suspected maids that we brought this morning under questioning, so we don’t know the result yet,” he added.
Sak Chhnang from Battambang province said on Wednesday that SKMM sent his 18-year-old daughter to Malaysia despite police investigations.
“They ordered my daughter to go to the airport by riding on the motor taxi, so now I need to ask the company for 1 million riel for her to return home.”
Fifteen-year-old Thon Srey Chan said SKMM staff had falsified documents using her sister’s birthday and name so she could be sent to a job in Malaysia.
“The brokers promised that everything was good, but when I came to stay in the company for about two months, it wasn’t like their promise, they took me to different places all the time when police came in,” she said.
Eighteen-year-old Soeung Soday said the company had divided trainees into groups, with the eldest held at centres in Russey Keo commune’s Mitapheap village and the youngest separated and hidden at the company’s office in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune during the police crackdown.
“In that place, there were about 100 maids, but they separated them when the police came to crack down, and about 30 maids are under-age.”
Mu Sochua said she waited yesterday until every one of the 47 recruits at one of SKMM’s centres had been freed, adding she would return tomorrow to oversee the release of recruits from remaining facilities.
She said Tan Kimseng’s connection to SKMM was indicative of entrenched conflicts of interest and profit-sharing between the ministries of labour and interior and labour recruitment firms.
“The ministries and the government must be very clear that any officials involved in the management or the ownership of the agencies must be given a choice – you leave your post or you leave your business. After that, you face law.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA YI SOMPHOSE