A 28-year-old maid was repatriated from Saudi Arabia on Monday, the third maid to be rescued from the Gulf state in the past five months, after going through brokers in Vietnam.
In a filmed interview with local media at the airport, Mhan Kiros, a Cham Muslim woman from Tbong Khmum province, said she travelled to Saudi Arabia more than a year and a half ago to work as a maid.
Once there, however, her employer did not pay what was promised, Kiros said. When she returned to her agency, managers seized her earnings and passport and sent her to clean different houses every day for four months without pay.
Alarming stories of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have concerned labour rights groups, even as the Ministry of Labour has pushed ahead with discussions to send more workers to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Qatar.
Two other maids who were repatriated in November with the help of rights groups also went through Vietnam, although it was not clear whether they used the same agency.
Ary Romsan*, 22, from Kampong Cham, returned last November after six months in Saudi Arabia.
While there, Romsan said she was forced to work at three different houses up to 20 hours per day without pay. After being caught trying to run away, her employer’s son and wife beat her with electrical cables.
Later, at her agency in Saudi Arabia, she was repeatedly raped by the agency owner, a memory that she says still fills her with shame. The agency also sent her to work at different houses every day, often from 6am to midnight, she said.
Romsan now earns money by collecting and selling honey, but things are harder now than before. After she lost contact with her family, her husband, a fisherman, sold his boat and used the money to travel to Phnom Penh to look for her.
“It’s unjust that I got abused, and they did the same things to many other women,” she said through tears.
Joseph Arnold, spokesman for anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said many trafficking victims transit through a third country to skirt legal enforcement in the home country. “Vietnam is a big one for us, as is Thailand,” he said.
Arnold said Chab Dai remains concerned about sending more workers to the Middle East, where Cambodia has little diplomatic presence.
Because Cambodia has no embassy in Saudi Arabia, Kiros sought help from Saudi police, the Vietnamese Embassy and the Thai Embassy before finally reaching the Cambodian Embassy in Kuwait, which arranged her return.
“We cannot ensure the safety and care of Cambodians without proper protection mechanisms in place,” Arnold said. “If exploitation happens, where will you go for help?”
Ministry of Labour Secretary of State Othsman Hassan, who helped repatriate Kiros, maintained the women encountered problems because they went through illegal agencies.
“They didn’t have a contract or read any of the working conditions, so we encourage people to go through the legal agencies in Cambodia,” he said.
According to a list released by the Ministry of Labour last month, 26 agencies are approved to send workers to Saudi Arabia, including two run by brothers of Hassan.
Thirty-two-year-old El Maiyan, who was also rescued in November along with Romsan, said she became so weak from overwork in Saudi Arabia that she fell off a balcony on the second floor of the house and was sent back to her agency to recover from her injuries.
While there, Maiyan said, a female manager sent her to different houses to work from day to day and beat her if she refused.
“She kicked me, slapped me and pushed me to the wall. She beat me once every two or three days,” said the mother of one from Stung Treng province.
After a few months, Maiyan began to vomit blood. That was when the agency decided to send her home with Romsan, but only after confiscating her salary, she said.
“I want to send my message to many other women,” Maiyan said. “Don’t go work overseas as a maid like me, especially in Saudi Arabia . . . Don’t get the same experience as me.”
*Name changed to protect the victim’s identity.