Cambodia is nearing a deal that would open a pipeline of workers to Saudi Arabia, a country where Southeast Asian migrants have in the past been abused and even executed for crimes that include “sorcery”.
Following a meeting in Hanoi last week with Saudi Ambassador Salah Ahmed Sarhan, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng told reporters that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two countries would be drafted and signed “as soon as possible”.
“Saudi Arabia needs workers from Cambodia to work in their country and our country needs the jobs, but we have to sign the MoU officially before sending workers there to ensure our workers’ safety,” he said.
“We have never sent people to work in Saudi Arabia before, so we need time to examine the labour conditions to protect our workers’ rights, too.”
He added that he hoped that the agreement would open up jobs for maids and people working in the industrial sector.
Saudi Arabia uses the kafala system, which cedes employers unusual powers by giving them control over when migrants can change jobs or leave the country.
The Saudi government, bowing to years of pressure, adopted new labour regulations for domestic workers in 2013. The new rules guarantee the monthly payment of wages, paid vacation at the end of two years, and a 15-hour workday.
A representative of Human Resources Development Company (HRD), a local recruitment firm owned by the brother of tycoon Othman Hassan, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour and prime ministerial adviser, said yesterday that the agency was preparing to send maids to the Middle Eastern kingdom.
“We heard from the Ministry of Labour that it will be signed soon,” Imran Hassan, HRD’s director, said. “When it happens, we are prepared to send maids to Saudi Arabia.”
In February, Saudi Arabia ruled that Indonesian women working in Saudi homes would be able to keep their passports, communicate with their families, get paid every month and have time off.
The accord follows years of criticism over abuses of Indonesian and Filipino maids and harsh punishments for alleged crimes committed against their employers, which led to a moratorium being imposed on new maids being sent from Indonesia in August 2011.
The same year, a 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded for killing her female boss with a meat cleaver. Ruyati binti Sapubi had suffered years of abuse before attacking her employer when she was denied permission to return home, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
At least 45 Indonesian domestic workers are thought to be on death row in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Embassy in Hanoi did not respond to requests for comment.
Rights groups yesterday expressed concern over the prospect of sending Cambodian workers to a country that inflicts harsh punishments and even the death penalty on many of its foreign labourers.
“It’s hugely worrying. The Ministry of Labour is willing to send people anywhere it can to make money. This is yet another shameful example of that,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said.
“The Cambodian government has repeatedly shown its inability to protect workers abroad. Cambodia can’t even protect people going next door to Thailand let alone to Saudi Arabia,” he added.
In October, 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia amid mounting concerns over rights abuses. But Robertson said Saudi Arabia presents more risks.
“This is an entirely different league to what we see in Malaysia,” he said. “The punishments [in Saudi Arabia] are more draconian. It has a brutal, barbarian penal code [with] cruel, unusual, inhumane punishments.
“NGOs [for foreign workers] don’t exist on the ground in Saudi Arabia, so workers would be on their own in a hostile situation. And the Cambodian government would be no help . . . it has already shown itself to be incompetent and corrupt.”
Joel Preston, a consultant with the Community Legal Education Centre, said female domestic workers were particularly at risk. “Saudi Arabia has a long history of inflicting severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse upon its migrant domestic workers,” he said. “We saw the same thing in Malaysia. Indonesian maids were consistently subjected to torture, rape and death. The Indonesian government instituted a ban on sending workers there. But the Cambodian government was more than willing to pick up the slack, sending its citizens to work in places where too many Indonesians had already died and suffered.
“It was essentially a death sentence for many young Cambodian women – and it’s happening all over again.”
Chak Sopheap, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government should work harder to create better job opportunities at home to avoid the need to migrate in the first place.
“One of the problems is there is a lack of job opportunities in the country. The government should create more jobs,” she said. “Individuals who choose to leave the country for work should benefit rather than suffer from the move.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE AND SEN DAVID