Consular officials yesterday were working to repatriate a Cambodian maid fleeing what she described as unfair working conditions in Saudi Arabia, even as Cambodia’s minister of labour was en route to seal a long-awaited deal to open a pipeline of workers to the Gulf nation.
Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said yesterday evening that Labour Minister Ith Samheng was on his way to Saudi Arabia and was “probably” going to conclude a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Saudis for Cambodian workers to be sent there.
“[Samheng] is likely to sign the MoU if the remaining clauses are concluded by both parties,” Sour said.
“Now he is on his way to Saudi Arabia and he will return here on [February] 12,” he added.
In the works since 2014, the MoU would be the first step in creating a legal avenue for Cambodians to work in Saudi Arabia, a country often described as one of the world’s worst places for migrant workers.
Cambodian Him Srey, who arrived in Saudi Arabia on January 8, told the Post yesterday that she is already prepared to come home.
Srey, a 39-year-old member of Cambodia’s Muslim Cham minority from Kampong Cham province, said a local broker promised she would be paid $300 a month as a maid in Riyadh.
However, Srey said she had been paid a total of only 10 Riyals ($2.67) so far, and was forced to toil off-hours with little food.
“My arm was broken after a moto accident in Cambodia … so when I arrived [in Riyadh], my arm didn’t work so well, but I tried to work hard in the household. The employer always blamed me, saying I was useless and always sick,” she said, adding that she had been transferred to different households four times.
Mat Yo Sos, Srey’s husband in Kampong Cham’s Kang Meas district, said Srey’s broker was demanding $1,500, a sum he was too poor to afford, to send Srey back home.
Because Cambodia has no embassy in Saudi Arabia, it is working with its embassy in Kuwait to repatriate Srey “soon”, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry.
But Srey’s case – and numerous other reports of migrant worker abuse in Saudi Arabia – is not stopping Cambodia from potentially sending its workers there.
Sour, of the Labour Ministry, explained that Srey and other Cambodians currently working in Saudi Arabia are “undocumented” and that the MoU would create a path to ensure Cambodians work there with full protections.
Sour stressed that Cambodians would only be sent to Saudi Arabia once a bilateral implementation agreement detailing such protections is signed.
But William Conklin, country director of the Solidarity Center, was sceptical Cambodian workers would be treated well there under any agreement.
“There is no civil society to intervene and workers have no rights there,” he said. “[Workers] often have to surrender their passports and sign contracts but find the terms have changed afterwards.”