The owner of a labour firm repeatedly accused of human trafficking, who is also the sister of one of the country’s top police officials, has been appointed head of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA).
Grave concerns have been expressed by rights groups over the appointment of Ung Seang Rithy, owner of the firm Ung Rithy Group, a firm they say police are reluctant to investigate, despite long-observed abuses because her brother is deputy, national police chief Sok Phal.
Outgoing president An Bunhak, who is stepping down after reaching the mandatory end of his five-year term, directed questions about any conflict of interest to Rithy herself, who said by email she would provide responses when she returned from Thailand later this week.
Sok Phal declined to comment, because he was also in Thailand.
But Hou Vuthy, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Labour’s department of labour, defended the right of ACRA’s board to elect any member they pleased. “It is their right. It is according to the congress of members to elect who are in the chamber of the association to lead its work,” he said.
He declined, however, to specifically address the issue of whether a recruitment firm owner with powerful ties to the police and a cloud over the lawfulness of her company’s activities should be put in charge of the industry’s top representative body.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said having the boss of such a powerful company in charge of ACRA was “very risky for all”.
“Even the police are much more careful and hesitant to take action [against Ung Rithy Group], and also, this company, the feeling of concern, is not only happening on the national level, it’s happening on the local level,” he said.
In October 2011, Rithy was unwittingly thrust into the international limelight when a CNN film crew door-stopped her Phnom Penh training centre to confront her about allegations her firm used debt bondage, recruited under-age trainees and forcibly detained them.
Rithy’s reaction – lunging at a camera man – helped draw international attention to endemic exploitation in the Cambodian labour recruitment industry, but the reports of abuse at her training centres date back long before that.
In April 2011, the Post reported that two girls, with identity documents to back up their claim, said they were sent to Malaysia by Ung Rithy Group when just 15 and 16-years-old.
The girls said they had tied their instructor in Malaysia to a chair in a desperate act to flee an exploitative training program.
According to information that rights group Licadho say they received from the Ministry of Information, 16 under-age recruits were rescued from an Ung Rithy Group training centre in 2010.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the appointment nothing short of shocking.
“Ung [Seang] Rithy and her group should be barred from migrant recruitment instead of leading the industry group in the field,” he said by email.