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Rights groups call for stronger protection of migrant workers

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Analysis
Thomas Miller

High-profile cases of alleged abuse of Cambodians training for domestic work in Malaysia have raised questions about the ability and willingness of governments to protect the rights of migrants.

Two women training for domestic work in Malaysia died recently at recruitment agencies in Phnom Penh, and another broke both her legs trying to escape. Trainees and their family members have claimed that the companies refused to release them until they had repaid the cost of their training.

Rights groups say such events demonstrate the vulnerability of Cambodians migrating to Malaysia for domestic work and demand significant policy responses in both countries. As Cambodia drafts a sub-decree to regulate recruitment agencies and a memorandum of understanding with the Malaysian government outlining employment conditions for domestic workers, groups are calling for stronger protections to ensure migrant rights are upheld.

Other countries have grappled with similar questions, particularly Indonesia.

A string of highly-publicised cases of abuse involving Indonesians working in Malaysia prompted its government to ban all of its citizens from seeking work in Malaysia as maids and construction and plantation workers in 2009.

“The most common types of abuses [of domestic workers] include excessively long working hours with no rest days, non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, and restrictions on freedom of movement,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. Varia also cited “regular cases” of physical and sexual abuse, and said the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur reported 953 complaints last year.

Many abuses go unreported, she said, especially because they occur in private homes where there is no oversight.

Indonesia’s policy resulted in a decline in the number of migrants to Malaysia and a surge in demand for maids from other countries, particularly Cambodia.

An Bunhak, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, said he has seen the industry “double” in the past year.  He said Cambodian recruitment agencies send 2,000 people to Malaysia each month, on average, to work as domestic workers.

During an ASEAN inter-parliamentary meeting on the rights of migrant workers held in Phnom Penh last week, Malaysian Senator Firdaus Haji Abdullah said there were 49,677 registered migrant workers from Cambodia in Malaysia currently. 30,000 of those are domestic workers, according to An Bunhak.

An Bunhak said Cambodian migrants earned US$300 million annually, and estimated that about 25 to 30 percent of that sum came from workers in Malaysia. A starting monthly salary for a domestic worker in Malaysia is about $200, but can rise to $300, he said.

Rights groups say Indonesia’s ban has been counterproductive because it restricts the options of impoverished Indonesians and increases the number of undocumented workers – opening doors to abuse, corruption and trafficking. Demand for domestic workers has been filled by other countries.

Varia said a ban should only be a short-term measure and would be most effective if some of the main suppliers of domestic workers to Malaysia – Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines – agreed on common standards for their workers and made a proposal to Malaysia.

Indonesia and Malaysia are still in negotiations over revisions to a 2006 agreement governing migrant workers.

Rights workers hope a similar agreement between Cambodia and Malaysia would address a number of circumstances in Malaysia that they say pave the way for abuse.

According to Human Rights Watch, domestic workers do not have holidays, limits on working hours or guaranteed wages. Irene Fernandez, director of the Malaysia-based migrant rights group Tenaganita, said domestic workers are defined as “domestic servants”, reflecting distinct class attitudes. “The relationship that has been established is servant to master,” she said.

Employers also have the authority to confiscate the passports of domestic workers.

“They misuse this authority and threaten them not to complain,” Eni Lestari, chair of the International Migrant Alliance, said. “For all migrant workers, our life is our document,” she said.

Moreover, employers are allowed to terminate the contract of a migrant at any time under immigration law, Varia said, providing a strong incentive not to complain.

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said domestic workers were “cut off” from support systems and left isolated, without their passports or adequate ability in the Malay language to seek help. Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme for the Community Legal Education Centre, said conditions in Malaysia rendered migrant domestic workers “invisible”. He said the home address where they work should be given to their families and the Cambodian embassy, and said Malaysian authorities should monitor working conditions.

Rights workers say the embassy should take on a stronger overall role by providing a hotline and shelter for migrant workers, and working with Malaysian authorities to investigate and prosecute abusive employers.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the embassy works with Malaysian authorities to investigate complaints and prosecute abusive employers. Rights groups, however, say investigations don’t go anywhere.

In negotiating any agreement with Malaysia, An Bunhak said rights groups could find common ground with recruitment agencies. He would support a paid holiday each week as well as a cap of eight working hours per day with paid overtime.

Recruitment firms and rights groups agree, at least publicly, that there is no basis for detaining workers against their will, but numerous instances have been documented.

An Bunhak said the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies would ask the government to suspend operations of any company that prevents a worker from returning home because of debt incurred.
But Moeun Tola said the government’s investigations of labour recruitment firms were inadequate. “I can say that they do nothing – nothing to punish the wrongdoing of the company,” he claimed.

He called for an end to loans to families who send workers abroad – which An Bunhak also said he opposed – and a limit on the amount of time that trainees could stay at recruitment centres of three months.
“Sometimes they don’t have adequate education so the company says they need more training, but the longer they stay, the further the family sinks into debt,” he claimed.

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