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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Voices of despair from S Arabia

Foreign labourers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh last year
Foreign labourers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh last year. AFP

Voices of despair from S Arabia

Abuse, deceit and slave labour were just some of the allegations that emerged from Cambodian workers in Saudi Arabia yesterday as talks between the two nations over a formal deal, which would see thousands more sent there, appeared to continue.

The complaints, voiced to the Post over the phone from Saudi Arabia, are the first to have emerged on such a scale from the Middle Eastern kingdom, notorious for its poor labour conditions.

Kunthea*, 32, moved to Saudi Arabia about five months ago. Fed up with struggling to exist on the meagre wage of a Cambodian garment worker, she was drawn to the country by the prospect of a monthly salary of $300 – almost three times higher than her earnings at home.

Kunthea – like two other migrant workers the Post spoke to – moved to the country with her husband after coming into contact with a local Arab broker and his Cambodian translator, who promised jobs as a cook and a driver with a Saudi petrol company.

But the reality they faced when they arrived was worlds apart from the dream they were sold.

Rather than being sent to the petrol company, Kunthea claims she and her husband were sent to a family home where she was immediately put to work as a maid, while her partner was appointed as the family’s private chauffeur.

Despite being married, Kunthea claims that she and her husband were separated and banned from sleeping in the same room, eating meals together or even speaking.

“The boss did not allow me to have any communication at all with my husband.… They are such wicked and bad-hearted people,” she said.

Kunthea says her husband was forced to sleep outside of the house, while she worked seven days a week looking after the family’s three children.

With their boss holding on to their passports, both felt trapped. The couple began communicating through letters, passed secretly to each other and written in their native Khmer.

But when the mother of the house got wind of what they were doing, she confiscated the letters.

After that, the situation became more unbearable.

“They insulted me with many bad words; I could not understand all of them.… You could say I was not equal to a cat or dog,” she said.

Two weeks ago, Kunthea and her husband escaped from the property. But without their passports and with their former boss demanding $5,500 that he claims he gave to the broker ahead of their arrival, their future remains uncertain.

“I would like to send my message to all Cambodian people: Please don’t come to Saudi Arabia. This country is very rich, but people are only rich in money, not in heart. I want no more high salary like this,” she said.

Two other workers the Post spoke to yesterday, also tricked by the same broker, told similar stories of mistreatment.

“We were promised $900 per month for three months’ probation and a raise of up to $1,200 if we can work there. In contrast, I got only about $300 per month and for the last three months, I got no salary,” 36-year-old Rith said.

Rith and six other men were employed by a construction company and tasked with driving cement trucks.

“There was no violence, but … we worked without a [break] day and night like in the Khmer Rouge period,” he said.

After Rith and the other men asked if they could return to Cambodia, the boss began withholding their salaries, demanding $2,500 before they could go home.

One month ago, the group fled and, in the absence of a Cambodian diplomatic presence in the county, sought help from the Thai Embassy.

An official at the embassy confirmed yesterday that the seven men will return to Cambodia on Monday.

But the scars from their experience look set to remain long after they have left the desert kingdom.

Sokha, who is among those returning next week, blamed himself.

“This is what happens to greedy people like us.… We are cheated in Saudi Arabia. We wanted a big salary, and we did not care about the risk of being trafficked,” he said.

*Names of all migrant workers have been changed to protect their identities.



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