Cambodia has signed a long-anticipated agreement to resume the legal flow of domestic workers to Malaysia, putting an end to a ban introduced more than four years ago amid reports of serious migrant abuses, which had led to multiple deaths.
A statement released yesterday evening by the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training confirmed that the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) lifting the 2011 ban.
It said the new agreement includes “crucial tools to protect the rights and benefits of workers and employees of both countries during the recruitment, working and repatriation stages”.
A second MoU dealing with general migrant workers was signed at the same time.
The statement said the agreements, which were signed in Kuala Lumpur, also aim to “promote cooperation in the labour sectors of the two countries following the integration framework of the ASEAN Economic Community”.
Officials from both countries will meet again soon to devise an “action plan” on how best to implement the two agreements, which will include creating an electronic system to monitor the numbers of workers in Malaysia.
After the ban was introduced, thousands of maids stayed in Malaysia. Some chose to remain in the country, others have allegedly had escapes thwarted by the embassy, and many have effectively disappeared.
Thousands more, attracted by the promise of higher wages, have travelled illegally to Malaysia since the 2011 ban. As undocumented workers, there are few protections available to them and reports of abuse from the country are still common.
The government estimates that 8,000 women continue to work as maids in Malaysia. Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, estimated that the real number was significantly higher than that figure.
In its statement, the Ministry of Labour said that the agreements would help to “prevent human trafficking and labour exploitation”. It also said Malaysia would now seek to legalise illegal Cambodian workers already in the country.
While the government was keen to espouse the benefits of the deal, rights groups and former migrant workers fear the maid MoU will mark a return to the starvation, rape and murder that prompted the ban.
Tola lambasted the secrecy surrounding the deal.
“We have not seen progress with the MoU; we have not seen the Malaysian government show commitment to protecting maids in Malaysia. We don’t have any objections to the Cambodian government finding jobs for people, but we need to make sure people are protected.”
Tola added that with Malaysia’s source of foreign maids drying up amid abuses, the Cambodian government had leverage to push for maximum rights for its workers.
Instead, he said, the government has allowed an illegal flow of workers to persist, while its embassy in Malaysia has exploited a “legal loophole” that enables it to extend the visas of maids already in the country.
“The MoU has not been disclosed or shared properly with stakeholders or NGOs. When you do something good you want people to know . . . [If the deal is positive] why must they hide it?”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the signing of the agreement would do little to protect Cambodian migrants.
“The fundamental problem is whatever is agreed, precious little gets actually implemented by either government,” he said.
Thirty-five-year-old Hok Pov, who returned to Cambodia in 2011 after two months of being abused by her employer, said she feared for other women following in her footsteps.
While only in Malaysia for a short time, Pov claims to have lost almost half of her body weight while being forced to work from 5am to midnight with almost no food.
“I don’t think it [the MoU] will protect our rights. Working there will still involve horrible conditions and lots of abuse,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to earn [the bigger] salary again in Malaysia, I’d rather work as a garment worker.”