A GROUP of Cambodian housemaids have fled Malaysia complaining of brutal treatment
and in some cases illegal imprisonment by an agent for the company which recruited
The women had been promised good wages - $120 a month - and good working conditions
for their two-year contract but already half of the first batch of 60 have returned
after less than a year, complaining of long working days, beatings for not speaking
English, starvation, low wages and, in one case, extortion of a worker's family.
The women were trained and flown to Malaysia by the Cambodian Labor Supply Ltd, a
locally owned company operating in Phnom Penh.
Former housemaid, 35-year-old Tum Sa Moeun, spent two of three months in Malaysia
imprisoned in the Malaysian agent's house. She had been working for her employer
for only 20 days, and claims that for three of those days he forced her to remain
standing in a still position, and did not feed her. Her complaints were met by his
sending her back to the CLS office for retraining.
Sa Moeun said the people at CLS subsequently beat her, ostensibly for not showing
her employer proper respect. Unable to understand their quick-fire English, she said
she answered her contractors in Khmer and was punished: "They beat me and slapped
me when I didn't immediately answer them in English."
When Sa Mouen refused to return to her employer and asked to be sent back to Cambodia,
CLS told her that her contract required her to return to her job. When she still
refused, she was detained in a room with four other Cambodian housemaids as well
as a number from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Confined on the top floor of the six-story block, Sa Moeun said they were fed only
a few spoons of plain, stale rice each day, and a tasteless thin soup of water and
Since, as far as they say they knew, no one outside the company knew of the women's
situation, Sa Moeun and one other woman, Tep Pove, orchestrated their own release
by dropping notes and pleas for help, along with a few odd photo IDs they had, out
the window of their cell and into the street below. Eventually, Malaysian police
intervened and the two women were released.
Later after the Cambodian authorities became involved the Malaysian Police secured
the release of the remaining three Cambodian women.
She said when the Malaysian police went to investigate the company, CLS claimed the
women had always been free to go.
Despite this claim, Sa Moeun says that CLS later contacted her mother in Takhmao
demanding she compensate them $800 to enable her daughter's return. If the money
was not paid, Sa Moeun's mother said she was told she would never see her daughter
She raised the $800 by pawning her land title, and Sa Moeun came home.
Sa Moeun contended that her "cruel" Malaysian boss didn't respect Cambodian
labor laws, and so he and CLS were the ones not fulfilling their contract: "The
law is good," she said, "but when I go [to work in Malaysia], the work
is different from the law. The law of Cambodia says in 24 hours I only have to work
8 hours and the rest of the time is mine, but the Malaysian asked me to work for
almost 24 hours every day."
She said she should only have had to work six days a week but her employer told her
if she did not work on the seventh day her pay would be docked $50.
Last month, 25-year-old Chhieu Vin returned to Cambodia. She had expected to work
as a housemaid but instead found herself working at a restaurant near Kuala Lumpur
along with Malaysian and Filipino co-workers. She worked there for three months and
was paid about $100.
Other CLS housemaids said Vin's boss, the owner of the restaurant, was mean and cruel
and forced her to work from dawn until midnight every day of the week. Vin would
have been happy to continue working in Malaysia, she said, but only if she was given
a different job. She said she was well liked at work, though admitted that her difficulties
with English were a problem.
CLS Managing Director Meidine Natchear, who also owns the company, suggested that
the housemaids' stories were unappreciative whining and complaining, and that the
maids didn't understand how good they had it.
She said those who had returned were lazy and thought the contract was a holiday.
However she admitted that, in the last year, there had been some complications involving
CLS workers and their landlords. She attributed them to the workers' inexperience
though she said some of the landlords may have been unkind.
A former CLS official said that some of problems could be attributed to workers having
"I know that some of the workers were sold to another company when they arrived
Kuala Lumpur, but I did not know what kind of work they were being sold to,"
the source said.
Sa Moeun said that before she and other housemaids were returned to Cambodia the
company they had been "sold" to took her out for a day's sightseeing in
an effort to create a good impression and assuage her complaints.
Meidine said that generally the housemaids were treated very well.
She said that the housemaids' training and education was paid for by the CLS, although
the maids had to forfeit their first four month's wages to pay for visa and transportation
The CLS training center in Phnom Penh houses three classrooms, dormitories and a
fitness gym. The latter, said Meidine, is lost on these women from the countryside.
"They do not know how interesting the gym is - it can make their bodies more
beautiful. Don't they know how much money some people pay to go to fitness gym clubs?"
The CLS English teacher, Sam Chan Ponleu, also described being frustrated with her
students from the countryside, pointing to how difficult it is to teach a foreign
language to people who mostly cannot read or write in their native language.
Meidine agreed that language was a problem.
Nevertheless, she praised the rural applicants, saying they were much better than
the first group she trained, most of whom were from Phnom Penh. She insisted that
the country women, though less sophisticated than their urban predecessors, were
used to working hard, and knew how to show respect, adding that the housemaids recruited
from the city were not committed to their work, and saw it simply as a travel opportunity.
Officials in Cambodia said they were happy with the current arrangements with Malaysia
and didn't believe more laws were necessary.
Khim San, the Director of the Cambodian Department of Social Services, said the labor
contract agreement between Cambodia and Malaysia fairly protects the rights and safety
of Cambodians working in Malaysia.
However he admitted he was aware of some of the complaints but dismissed them, saying
that there were bad employers everywhere, even in Phnom Penh.
Meanwhile, 70 more schooled and trained Cambodian housemaids are ready and waiting
in Phnom Penh to try their luck in Malaysia.
Again they are mostly from the countryside, anxious to escape poverty and in some
cases an unhappy home life.