Sitting on the white tile floor in his home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, 29-year-old Yan Muon switched back and forth between Khmer and English as he remembered four years spent working at an electronics factory in Malaysia.
The pay, of $151 per month, was about one-third less than promised and was withheld for six months. Holidays and Sundays passed like any other work day. All around him, cruel and greedy employers took advantage of the ignorance of migrants, withholding paychecks, requiring extra work without paying overtime and even physically abusing them.
“I was very hurt,” he said.
Like many Cambodians, Muon migrated to Malaysia seeking steady employment and a better life, but instead found a system rife with abuse, and lacking any recourse for workers against exploitative employers.
Unlike many other workers, however, Muon decided to do something about it.
When he first arrived in 2013, there was no network connecting Cambodian workers to one another. Most were unaware of their rights. So he reached out to local NGOs for help.
“They gave us advice on the law and what we should do,” he said. “If they don’t unite, when there are individual problems they cannot help each other. The employer can do anything. United we have more power.”
In 2015, Muon was one of a group of 20 who founded the Generosity of Migrant Workers Foundation to unite workers, and in extreme cases help them flee the country.
All of the 20 leaders pay 10 Malaysian ringgit, or about $2.50, of their own money per month into a fund, while also holding fundraisers.
Each is free to withdraw up to 20 percent of the total funds collected at any given time to facilitate an escape. Ten percent can be withdrawn to help a family after a death.
In total, Muon helped facilitate the return of seven migrants to Cambodia while he lived in Malaysia, four of whom had ended up in Malaysian prison after “violating” their contracts. In those cases, he arranged their release through the Cambodian Embassy.
“One of the domestic workers was physically abused by the employer,” Muon said, about a woman named Keo Sreythea*, who was both beaten and raped while pregnant when she was around 19 years old.
“I contacted a broker to send her back via Thailand,” he said, explaining that she was smuggled illegally out of the country as her employer had taken her passport.
Sreythea, who is using a pseudonym because of privacy concerns, told The Post she was “lucky” to have met Muon.
“I don’t want to remember that painful story . . . I tried to escape from that house, but unfortunately that man caught me and beat on my whole body and raped me,” she said, crying over the phone.
She explained that she helped four other girls escape the same house before her own rescue.
“[Muon] was so nice and he gave me food and accommodation. When I ran from my employer I didn’t have a passport with me, so he gave me the money and a contact in the [Cambodian] Embassy to seek help,” she said.
“He cared for me like a brother for a sister.”
The problems Muon faced as a worker in Malaysia are in line with what many migrants have experienced there. Adrian Pereira, executive director of Malaysian human rights group North-South Initiative, said abuses like withholding passports and paychecks were so rampant in the past that the Cambodian government suspended sending workers to Malaysia in 2011. Negotiations over a new memorandum of understanding between the two countries are ongoing.
Pereira said confiscating documents and withholding pay are methods “to control workers so they are forced to stay”, adding that there is no system for workers to change employers once in Malaysia. Reports of sexual assault are much rarer, though that may be because “it’s very rare that the workers complain” to authorities and NGOs.
The Malaysian government, meanwhile, does not have enough trained inspectors, and the Cambodian authorities have not provided enough training to educate migrants on their rights, and what recourse they have, before leaving. “When abuse happens, nobody knows until the worker runs away,” he said.
While there are smugglers who bring Cambodian workers into Malaysia illegally, there is also traffic in the other direction for those fleeing abuse.
“Because of the history with refugees from the Pol Pot era, there is a huge community of Cambodians here without documentation. They have contacts and smugglers to bring them across the borders,” Pereira said.
In one case, Muon helped a worker escape in a daring midnight flight. The woman had worked in Malaysia for six years as a domestic worker and had been transferred to a company three years before that never paid her. She worked a regular factory job, then did housework, working more than 16 hours each day unpaid.
“She wasn’t allowed to contact her family, not even allowed to talk to others,” Muon said, adding that when he met her she was “very thin”.
“When we saw how bad she looked, we tried to help her and asked if she wanted to leave, but she was very scared.”
Together with other members of his foundation, they planned an escape, with the worker slipping through the back gate into a forest where foundation members were waiting in the darkness.
“They called the police to search for her. She left with just the clothes on her back,” Muon said.
From there, the foundation hired a broker, who smuggled her into Cambodia through Thailand. She left her passport behind and was never paid for her three years of labour.
According to migrant worker San Kosal, Muon is involved in more long-term projects than just rescues, devoting much of his time to education.
“He created a literacy class to teach [reading and writing] the Khmer language, and mathematics and English classes to help Cambodian migrant workers gain more knowledge,” Kosal said.
Last year, Muon left Malaysia to return home. While he feels a tinge of sadness for leaving, he said he primarily returned home because his mother was sick.
“I have to look after her,” he explained, adding that the foundation is capable of running itself now that a “network” has been established.
In Phnom Penh, his entire home is one room, just under 8 metres square, with the floor nearly completely bare. Pots and pans hang on a cracking white wall above a stovetop tucked in the corner, while two hammocks are slung up against the wall.
On top of caring for his mother, Muon also returned to make a difference at home.
His dream is to enter the political arena, but first he wants to study law and work with NGOs that protect workers in Cambodia.
Muon’s skills are in high demand. Kao Poeun, deputy leader of union Informal Democratic Economy Association, said his organisation often relied on Muon when he was in Malaysia and would like to hire him.
“Our organisation and our partner NGO in Malaysia got a lot of support from him . . . We are struggling a lot now that he’s back in Cambodia,” Poeun said. “Right now, our organisation . . . is seeking funds to hire him to work with us so he can work part-time in Malaysia and part-time in Cambodia.”
Meanwhile, Sam Inn, secretary-general and spokesman of the Grassroots Democracy Party, has been in contact with Muon for years, and sees a promising future for him with the party. “When he was a worker in Malaysia he was interested in GDP, so he kept in touch with me through [Facebook] Messenger,” Inn said.
“We warmly welcome him, we invite him and encourage him to become part of the GDP working group in Phnom Penh and the youth wing at a national level.”
Inn believes that Muon has the “qualities” and “potential” to become a leader within the party.
“He is an outstanding youth leader who knows how to build networks. He’s a good person who wants to help others, to provide service to others,” he said. “We like that quality very much.”