Cambodia's house cleaners union is pushing to bring in a minimum wage and better conditions for the country’s maids
It took domestic worker Chay Sominea, 31, about a year and a half before she summoned the courage to ask her employer for two days off per month.
"I was not brave to negotiate with the owner to have workers' rights" she said. She works 14 hours a day for $120 a month.
Low wages, long hours and unfair treatment continue to plague domestic workers in the Kingdom, say campaigners who are leading the push for change in the industry.
But as stories continue to emerge of abuse and abysmal treatment of those who migrate to countries like Malaysia and Singapore, the thousands employed in the sector face a difficult choice.
For Sor Kim Loun, one of more than 240,000 domestic workers based in Cambodia, the Kingdom is a preferable option. But until recently, she worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, for just $50 per month. Travelling nearly two hours a day for work,
Loun struggled to support her five children on approximately $2 a day.
Although she worked Saturdays, she did not get paid for it. The owner was normally absent that day, and routinely denied that she had worked, she said.
She eventually joined the Cambodian Domestic Worker Network (CDWN), an education and advocacy group formed in 2012, and now earns $120 a month.
Her story is a common one. According to the CDWN, 60 per cent of all domestic orkers in Cambodia earn less than $50 a month, and 90 per cent work seven days a week.
There are limited options for domestic workers living in Cambodia, having to decide between staying in their homeland for hardly liveable salaries and moving abroad and exposing themselves to potential abuse and loss of freedom.
"Domestic workers in Cambodia have a lower salary, but they can stay with their family so it is easier," said Von Samphous, the president of CDWN, which is trying to unionise domestic workers in Cambodia to secure better working conditions.
"Overseas, someone might violate them or do something wrong to them, so that is why they decide to stay in Cambodia, even though they have a lower salary."
While working in Cambodia may appear a preferable option to overseas work, problems are rife.
Of the 80 per cent who are live-in workers, half do not have a private room, leaving them open to sexual abuse and harassment, according to 2009 International Labour Organization (ILO) data.
While the responsibilities of a domestic worker typically incorporate cleaning, cooking meals and caring for children or elderly relatives, some employers demand they work late hours and take on additional roles without compensation, according to CDWN.
Samphous worked as a maid while studying at university. As the sole worker for a house of seven Cambodians, she made $50 per month. "I also had to work more than eight hours – for example, if they had a party and their guests arrived at midnight, I would have to open the door for them."
Part of the reason she got involved with the CDWN, which has links to the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), was to help educate workers about their rights.
"First, we teach the domestic worker not about the rules but about the contract from the owner of the house: obedience, maternal leave, normal leave and sanitation," Samphous said.
While many domestic workers use agencies to make contracts with their employers, either verbally or in writing, they often have difficulty maintaining agreed-upon rights, she said.
"Sometimes, the owner cannot agree to what they have signed, sometimes the owners say, 'they didn't do it well or they just did it and did not come to work early.' This is the problem, the owner talks to the agency and they lower the salary."
While a recent study by relocation service Expat2Cambodia found that foreigners in Cambodia generally paid workers a higher wage, an average of $212 per month for 40 to 45 hours work a week, problems remained.
Some 40 per cent of the households surveyed said their employee worked overtime, but only 27 per cent paid them for that time.
"Even expats become quite complacent, because they have been here for so long they think it's OK to pay someone full-time for only $80 to $100 per month," said Marisa Tan, founder of domestic worker training organisation Maid in Cambodia (MIC).
MIC, which opened its doors in June, trains workers extensively in cleaning and hygiene before placing them in households.
According to its website, the fair wage is $150 for a half-daily clean, six days a week for a small villa or apartment and up to two adults and two children. The cost goes up to $300 a month for a household of five adults and five children, in a large house, six days a week.
There is not yet an agreed-upon minimum wage for domestic workers in Cambodia, but CDWN is campaigning for the ratification of Convention 189, which demands a fair minimum wage. The convention has so far been ratified in only nine countries across the world, with the Philippines the only country in Asia, however another five countries are set to ratify it within the next year.
In Cambodia, CDWN are pushing for $160 per month, at least one full day off per week, compensation for overtime and a safe room for live-in staff.
According to Samphous, the Ministry of Labour has shown no interest in enforcing the convention, saying the work of domestic staff does not require it.
"In the ministry, they say we are only working in the house, cooking and cleaning, so why do we need 189?" Samphous said. "I gave them the reason but they didn’t respond."
CDWN, which currently has 350 members, intends to expand and unionise workers like others overseas.
"In Hong Kong, they have big meetings for the domestic workers to come and meet each other, to release statements and make any challenges they have against their employers," Samphous said.
In June, about 100 CDWN members rallied outside the Ministry of Labour, calling for the ratification of Convention 189.
"If we can work with each other and the government, than we can help the domestic workers," Samphous said.
The Ministry of Labour did not respond to requests for comment for this article.