Unions seek to give a voice to live-in maids and others without rights or representation
Live-in housekeepers work in isolation, putting them at risk of mistreatment by their employers.
DOMESTIC employees and workers in small household businesses face unique risks - with housekeepers, live-in maids, home security guards and other such workers subject to mistreatment by their employers - so trade unions are now opening the door to looking into complaints from these non-union workers.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, told Work Week that his union is willing to investigate complaints from otherwise unrepresented workers who are employed as maids, in restaurants and hotels, on rubber plantations and as construction labourers.
"The labour law is supposed to be applied to all types of workers, including housekeepers, waiters and low-skilled labourers," Rong Chhun said.
Long hours, low pay
Thousands work in jobs that are largely unregulated and un-represented by unions, many facing long work hours and difficult circumstances.
Sok Chea, a 17-year-old from Kampot province, got a job as a dishwasher at a Daun Penh district restaurant a year ago.
"I work from 6am to 6 pm, but I don't have any overtime pay, just three breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Sok Chea.
She earns 160,000 riels (US$39) a month and sleeps in a room with her co-workers, many of them male.
"I am worried that I may be raped," she said.
"I have no separate room, no door I can lock. We all sleep together with boys and girls mixed in one room."
Penh Chanthea, 23, of Svay Rieng province, has been working as a live-in maid for over two years and earns only US$15 per month, plus room and board.
She gets up at 4:30am every morning to begin cleaning the house and to go to the market.
"I have to get my boss's son's clothes ready for school and then clean four rooms," she said.
"I'm always out of breath," Penh Chanthea said.
She said she is sometimes accused of being careless if something goes wrong around the house or the homeowner's son is hurt.
"I am not angry with my boss, but they blame me because they want me to be correct and quick with my work," she said.
"[But] for my work, I never really end up with anything at the end of the month because, whenever my parents phone my boss needing money, I get the money from my boss to send to them," she said.
"Mostly, I get all my salary paid up during public holidays such as Khmer New Year and P'Chum Ben because it is my holiday when I can go to my home province twice a year."
Chea Mony, president of Free Trade Union (FTU), said live-in housekeepers were, like garment makers, at particular risk to working for long hours at low pay but, unlike garment workers, enjoyed no union protection.
"These employees are at high risk ... and are working without contracts," said Chea Mony.
Average salaries for live-in domestic workers were only about 100,000 riels a month.
Chea Mony said the FTU would like to see the Ministry of Labour treat domestic workers the same as workers in the garment sector, with work hours of no more than eight hours a day.
"If garment workers are able to collectively demand wage increases, housekeepers and construction workers should be able to as well," said Rong Chhun.
"We are working to accept any complaints from housekeepers who face mistreatment from their employers at home. This is an issue of concern for both the ministry and unions to study properly and sort out."
Oum Mean, secretary of state in the Ministry of Labour, said unions needed to be aware that the Kingdom's labour law did not apply to all types of workers.
"They [unions] should look in to the labour law again.... It doesn't apply to housekeepers because they are working outside of the system," Oum Mean said.
Low education levels
"I think that housekeepers or maids who are working with individual families are not as big a problem as in other countries because many employers hire their own relatives," he added.
Kang Chandararot, director of the Cambodia Institute for Development Study, said employment as domestic workers offered basic jobs to the poor and those with low educational levels.
These jobs were not significant in the general economy but needed to be addressed as a social issue, he said.
Domestic work can carry more risks than factory jobs, but with no rights, no skills development, no chances to increase one's knowledge and very low wages, Kang Chandararot noted.
"I think that to protect them, we should have a law stating their working conditions and setting a minimum wage."
Meanwhile, some restaurant workers expressed satisfaction with their jobs.
Touch Tean, 22, who has seven brothers and sisters to help support in Prey Veng, works as a waiter at Mlop Mean, near Phsar Kapko market.
He says he earns $40 per month plus meals and said he was happy with his job.
"I think this job is fair for me because I only went to school through the fifth grade," he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY KUNMAKARA