Two teenagers have alleged they were hidden in a noodle-soup restaurant by a Phnom Penh recruitment firm over the weekend, despite the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies’ blanket ban on the sending of migrant domestic workers to Malaysia.
The 19- and 20-year-old girls, both below the minimum working age for domestic workers in Malaysia, said they had been transferred by AP TSE & C Cambodia Resource to work in the restaurant on Saturday, despite telling staff they wanted to go home following ACRA’s announcement on Thursday of the temporary ban.
“I wanted to go home, but I did not have money, so a teacher at the centre sent me to the restaurant, where I was secured one day later,” one of the girls said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Huy Pich Sovann, a program officer at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, said the pair had been rescued yesterday in Svay Pak village – a notorious brothel area, also known as K11, in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district.
“It is their right. If they want to work at the noodle-soup [restaurant], okay, we can let them work in the [restaurant], but the girls want to go home; they want to go and see their families first,” he said.
On Thursday, ACRA ann-ounced that it would effectively regulate itself, closing a loophole introduced by the Ministry of Labour that exempted trainees with existing contracts and travel documents from a suspension order signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on October 16 that forbade recruitment firms from sending domestic workers to Malaysia.
ACRA’s decision expressly forbade its 47 members from sending trainees to Malaysia as domestic workers under any circumstances and mandated that they be given the choice to leave their companies without financial penalty.
ACRA president An Bunhak said yesterday 500 or 600 recruits had been sent home over the weekend from three companies including his own, Top Manpower; Philimore, owned by ACRA chairman Lao Ly Hok; and the Ung Rithy Group.
“So we make sure all the maids go back home. Even though they say their families have no food to eat [and] they cannot survive if they go back home, we push them to go back home,” he said, adding that about 40 remaining trainees would leave the centres no later than today.
But An Bunhak argued that the poor and unemployed trainees would now be susceptible to exploitation via prostitution or the drug trade and questioned why rights groups that lobbied against the business had not considered this.
Eric Meldrum, operations director of South East Asian Investigations in Social and Humanitarian Activities, said it was a concern that an avenue of employment for about 30,000 people was being closed.
“If you take away the chance to go to Malaysia and earn money, which is one of the few options for employment in this country, it does leave them open to exploitation and trafficking,” Meldrum said, adding that the answer was proper regulation of the labour recruitment industry.
On Friday, a group of at least six trainees, including one with documents from the employment firm Century Manpower, boarded an early-morning flight to Malaysia in defiance of ACRA’s decision.
A representative of Century Manpower reiterated the company’s position yesterday that it was allowed to send recruits because of the Ministry of Lab-our’s loophole, but declined to comment further.
Local media reports that the owner of a subsidiary of the firm Mey Yorn Services had been arrested after under-age recruits were discovered at one his company’s centres could not be confirmed yesterday, and staff at AP TSE & C Cambodia Resource could not be reached for comment.
Last week, SKMM Investment Group became the latest labour firm embroiled in a spate of exploitation controversies after it was discovered the company had been forcibly detaining under-age recruits and scores of women.
Tan Kimseang, deputy chief of the International Police Department at the Ministry of Interior and the husband of SKMM Investment Group owner Nhem Sothea, said yesterday a tuk-tuk driver, a security guard and a cook from his wife’s firm had been taken by police for questioning.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY YI SOMPHOSE