Cambodia and Hong Kong yesterday agreed to start a five-year pilot program to send domestic workers to Hong Kong “very soon”, though experts urged caution, noting that migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong have faced a “slew of abuses”.
The agreement was reached during a meeting in Hong Kong between a delegation led by Cambodian Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng and Hong Kong Secretary of Labour and Welfare Stephen Sui, said Heng Sour, a spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Labour.
The move comes only months after Hong Kong’s immigration department announced that, effective March 1, the visa requirements for Cambodian nationals would be relaxed and Cambodians would be able to apply for employment, investment, training and study schemes.
“The first employment sector that Hong Kong will provide to Cambodian nationals is domestic helper,” Sour said, adding that both countries “acknowledged the mutual benefit of hosting and sending the domestic helpers”.
Hong Kong doesn’t have a quota system for foreign domestic workers, leaving the matter up to the employers, but both sides agreed to start with a five-year pilot project that’s expected to send workers to Hong Kong “very soon”, Sour said.
Hong Kong’s Labour and Welfare Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. Moeun Tola, head of labour rights group Central, said the Cambodian government needed to learn from a similar 2013 pilot scheme to send domestic helpers to Singapore, which was criticised for being opaque, and for sending workers abroad with inadequate training.
“At the end of the day, it resulted in many violations due to the language barriers and cultural differences,” he said. “We need to look back at the experience with Singapore.”
Singapore’s pilot program had attempted to avoid a repeat of widespread severe abuses against Cambodian maids in Malaysia, which led to a 2011 ban on sending maids there.
Even so, in 2015, Singapore-based worker welfare group Transient Workers Count Too wrote the program off as a “failure” due to concerns over poor working conditions and, in some cases, abuse.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said “migrant domestic workers have faced a slew of abuses in Hong Kong, including violence and sexual abuse”, as well as difficulties getting paid.
“The Cambodian government needs to demonstrate that it has the political will and organisation capacity to protect [its] migrant workers when they go overseas,” he wrote in an email. “This will require commitment to protect rights that Cambodia has so far totally lacked in its sending of workers overseas.”