Dissatisfied by wages at home, thousands of Cambodians have been lured to Malaysia by the promise of bigger pay cheques, but while many have found themselves subjected to long hours, unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions and even physical abuse, they have – until now – been unable to unionise.
Yesterday, however, dozens of Cambodians gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the first-ever “workers congress”, which was organised by local union Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), the Cambodia Domestic Worker Network (DWS) and the Cambodian Youth Network, in cooperation with NGO Dignity International.
At the landmark event, the Cambodian Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network was officially created.
“They cannot form an actual union so they wanted to form an association of workers in Malaysia,” explained Chum Chamm, a program officer with IDEA-DWS.
Adrian Pereira, Dignity International’s Asia coordinator, said the role of the network was to get migrant workers “organised and empowered”.
Pereira told the Post that 57 workers from four different electronics and garment factories attended the event at Pearl International Hotel, which was also attended by civil society groups and the International Labour Organization.
Domestic workers – who have historically suffered abuse at the hands of their Malaysian employers – will also be represented. But, highlighting their poor working conditions, none could attend the event as they had no days off, Pereira said.
During the congress, Pereira said, complaints voiced by workers included “having to work on holidays without getting the correct OT [overtime]. Some said their passports were kept and they were just given photocopies and some [told of] cases of abuse”.
Solidifying its inception, workers yesterday voted for a president, vice president and secretary general of the network, all of whom were female factory workers.
Speaking after the congress, newly elected president 34-year-old Mom Monita – a garment worker who has been living in Malaysia for 10 years – was confident about the role.
“I will help to contact the Cambodian Embassy to find phone numbers for them so they can find help or I will help them to get the documents they need if they have problems.”
Representatives of the Cambodian Embassy, which rights groups have accused of playing a key role in pressuring domestic workers to stay in the country, declined an invite to yesterday’s event after initially accepting, Pereira said.
While the government in 2011 introduced a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Malaysia, an estimated 30,000 Cambodians were left behind without protection. Meanwhile, meagre wages in the Kingdom’s factory sectors have pushed workers to a country where salaries can be three times higher.
Pov Pedour, 31, left Cambodia to work in a Malaysian electronics factory about four years ago.
“I used to work in a factory in Phnom Penh but the salary is low so that’s why I moved here,” Pedour said.
But in Malaysia, Pedour faces many of the problems she did at home.
“I always have problems at work but I have to endure it,” she said. “Sometimes the company cuts our salary or we have to work extra hours without pay but I do not dare to file a complaint because I want to work there.”
Pereira of Dignity International said he hoped the creation of the group would also help pave the way for greater transparency in the drafting of two agreements: one ending a moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia and the other focusing on rights of other workers.
In August, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour told the Post that both memorandums would be signed at the same time. Yesterday, he said “there is no new development”.