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Preventing the abuse of migrant workers

Dear Editor,

Recently, the Malaysian embassy wrote to the Post defending its labour protection legal framework. As part of my recent research for an NGO, I interviewed, among others, 29 Cambodian migrant workers, some of whom had been housemaids in Malaysia. Their stories must be told. Their experiences and ordeals must be heard so that measures can be taken to assist them and to prevent others from becoming potential victims of trafficking, exploitation and/or abuse.

Migrant workers are generally poor and poorly educated. Many live in dysfunctional or broken families. Poverty and restricted employment opportunities force them to take risks and migrate internationally to look for a better livelihood. Their work includes domestic and factory jobs, employment in the fisheries sector and begging. Their ordeals of abuse and/or exploitation vary depending on their legal status, age, gender and the nature of their work.

My study identified six common problems that legal migrant workers encountered: (1) poor working conditions; (2) lack of proper health care and protection; (3) no payment or underpayment; (4) physical or sexual harassment; (5) inhumane treatment; (6) lack of freedom and family connectedness. Those who go through formal channels appear to experience lesser abuse and exploitation compared with those who go through informal channels. Even formal channels, however, are not perfectly safe, as workers voiced serious and often substantiated allegations of malpractice by recruitment agencies, employers and law enforcement agencies.

The Cambodian government has been making significant efforts to improve the labour-export system. Still opportunities for improvement remain,
and some immediate actions are necessary. The MOU between Cambodia and Malaysia should be concluded, and a comprehensive legal framework on labor export be developed. The relevant Cambodian embassies must assist migrant workers and need to have labour attachés. A former migrant worker to Malaysia told me: “When I set foot in Cambodian soil, I burst into tears because I was so happy. Only 500 riels left. The Cambodian embassy is our parents when we are abroad. It should have done much more to help us”.

Large-scale studies on labour migration/trafficking are imperative to inform future policies. Government inspections of recruitment agencies should be more rigorous. As long as poverty and limited job opportunity prevail, Cambodians will continue to migrate. Programmes for poverty reduction and local job creation would reduce the need for migration among the destitute. If Cambodians continue to be sent overseas, it should not be purely for labour-intensive work, especially domestic work, but for work that would contribute to the development of the country’s human resources.

Chenda Keo
Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security

Send letters to: or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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