Labour officials sent off 14 maids to Hong Kong yesterday in celebration of a pilot program that hopes to funnel up to 1,000 maids to the Asian financial hub despite concerns from rights groups.
The women, who have received basic training in Cantonese and other skills, will join a handful of other maids who left shortly after the program launched in August.
Hong Kong is trying to meet rising demand for domestic helpers despite numerous high-profile cases of abuse of foreign domestic workers in recent years.
Still, many of the women boarding the plane at Phnom Penh International Airport said they were encouraged by the promise of better protections and a $550 per month salary.
Even 25-year-old Srorn Theary, who said she had previously suffered abuses as a maid in Malaysia from 2011 to 2014, said she was willing to take the risk again.
“The Ministry of Labour promised that if I have any problems, there are phone numbers for me to contact and the Cambodian Embassy will visit us when we’re working there,” Theary said.
The government has authorised six agencies to send domestic helpers to Hong Kong. Three of the agencies – Top Manpower, Ung Rithy Group and Anny Rita Best Manpower – have been accused of labour abuses in the past.
Tina Chan, of Hong-Kong based anti-trafficking group Stop Trafficking of People (STOP), said Cambodian domestic workers will be vulnerable to exploitation due to the language barrier and lack of connections.
“We’re still looking for a Khmer translator or interpreter, and we haven’t been able to find one yet,” Chan said. “[Cambodians in Hong Kong] are new and not well-connected yet. It could be really difficult for them to be connected to us.”
Joseph Arnold, spokesman for anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said his group has handled abuse cases for Cambodian workers in Hong Kong in the past, but added that the government agreement should give them added protections.
“The biggest thing is making sure everyone who leaves has a phone, the ability to call for help and knowing their rights and what they can do to protect themselves,” Arnold said.
It was unclear yesterday at the airport whether family members had been adequately prepared, however.
Yin Huon, who came to say goodbye to her 19-year-old daughter, said officials at the airport gave her a paper with contact information for the agency and ministry, but not for her daughter’s employer or the local maid agency in Hong Kong.
Still, Huon said she felt optimistic that the ministry would protect her daughter, who she said dropped out of school in fifth grade due to lack of money.
“If my daughter has any problem, I can call them and ask for help, so I trust that and don’t worry anymore,” Huon said.
Ngoy Rith, deputy director of the ministry’s Labour Department, downplayed concerns about exploitation. According to Rith, each maid will be given a smartphone and the Cambodian Embassy will visit their workplaces to check for abuse.
“We have already prepared everything to handle those concerns,” he told reporters.
Additional reporting from AFP