Under an agreement with Malaysia, Cambodian migrant workers will be allowed to hold on to their passports and copies of their contracts but will be banned from any “political activities”, according to a draft version of the document obtained by the Post.
The memorandum of understanding (MoU) is one of a pair of long-awaited labour agreements with Malaysia, the details of which the government has sought to keep under wraps ahead of their hoped-for signing at the end of the year.
The other covers domestic workers, who were banned from moving to the country in October 2011 amid mounting concerns over abuses, including rape and starvation, which led to multiple deaths.
According to Malaysian government data, there are currently 13,245 Cambodian workers in Malaysia, with more than half (7,796) working as maids.
The agreement covering general workers includes several protections for Cambodians, including an eight-hour working day, paid overtime and at least one day off per week.
But it also prohibits workers from getting married while under contract and from taking part “in any political activities or activities of those connected with political organisations in Malaysia”.
Only people between the ages of 18 and 45 can move to the country under the five-year agreement, and they must “possess basic knowledge of Malaysian culture and social practices” as well as English- or Malay-language skills.
According to the draft, workers are obliged to give two months’ notice or pay their employers two months’ wages if they want to cancel their contracts early. They must also cover the travel costs back to Cambodia.
The employer, however, is required to pay “all outstanding wages … should [the worker] be repatriated before completing the contract period for whatsoever reason”.
Despite the number of safeguards for migrant workers, points of the MoU have raised concerns.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said that the ban on political activity violates international agreements.
“These laws also provide equal rights to migrant workers as the citizens and all workers of the receiving country,” she said by email.
In South Korea, where tens of thousands of Cambodian migrants work, Ambassador Suth Dina came under fire earlier this month for warning workers there to avoid political activity.
Garment worker Mom Monita, leader of the newly formed Cambodian Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network (CMWSN), said the ban was “unfair”.
As well as encouraging workers to have an awareness of Malaysian politics, the network hopes to engage migrants in Cambodian politics, as it attempts to secure their right to vote in the Kingdom’s next national election.
Monita said the most pressing demands from CMWSN’s members are “that they keep their passports, [that] wages are paid, and holiday is given”. She added that provisions detailing what should happen in the case of an abusive employer should also be included.
While mainly an issue for maids, other migrant workers can also suffer from mistreatment, she said.
Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour confirmed by text that both MoUs were “finalised last week at the technical level” but did not respond to questions about details of the agreements.
Choub Narat, deputy director-general of the ministry’s Labour Department, said the signing ceremony for both MoUs is planned for the end of the year. Narat said he could not reveal details about the agreements yet.
An early draft of the contentious domestic worker MoU was also obtained by the Post this week.
The document says that domestic workers must be 21 to 45 years old and will be required to undergo “pre-departure training”, which should “encompass sufficient knowledge of Malaysian laws, cultures and social practices in addition to training in domestic work”.
A working group of Cambodian and Malaysian officials will monitor the agreement and a task force will oversee its implementation, according to the draft. It adds that both Cambodia and Malaysia should observe the “confidentiality and secrecy of documents, information and other data received or supplied to the Party” while the MoU is in force.
The draft says that any differences arising from the MoU will be “settled amicably” between the countries, and “without references to any third party or international tribunal”.
Various points in the draft have been disputed, with lines drawn through them.
One such clause says that the monthly wage should be “determined by market forces”, which Malaysian employers have previously advocated for. A line referring to wages meeting the local minimum wage standards was also highlighted and crossed out.
Another disputed article says that if maids run away from their employers, their work permits will be revoked unless they left because of “factors relating to their treatment by [their] employer such as being abused, beaten or physically violated”.
Also, while the employers and domestic workers must “comply with Malaysian laws, rules, regulations, policies and directives”, an article ordering the same from Malaysian recruitment agencies has been crossed out.
Either government can end the agreement by giving three months’ notice. But, significantly, contracts signed before the termination of the MoU will still stand.
Since the ban was introduced in 2011, a number of domestic workers have been trapped in the country.
Rights activists have claimed that the embassy has hampered its citizens’ attempts to return home by exploiting a “legal loophole” that allows it to renew visas, which they say then opens the door for the renewal of work permits.
For the families of domestic workers trapped in Malaysia, news of the upcoming agreement raises major concerns.
Kheng Nhav said his 21-year-old daughter is still working in Kuala Lumpur despite her visa having expired.
“She [has] wanted to come back since her contract finished with her first boss two years ago, but she was sent to another boss who withheld her passport so she could not come back home,” he said.
Nhav, who is desperate for his daughter to return, said that the new MoU won’t change the way Cambodian maids are treated.
“Bad Malaysian bosses will still mistreat their maids; they don’t care about the law.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA AND SEN DAVID