Labour advocates are questioning the wisdom of sending more Cambodian workers to Saudi Arabia after the case of a 28-year-old maid trapped without pay in the Gulf nation for more than a decade came to light earlier this month.
Their critiques come in the wake of the revelation, first published by the Cambodia Daily, that the then-16-year-old girl was sent abroad through a now-defunct recruitment company owned by government official Ahmad Yahya.
Advocates say the experience of Sos Rotors, 28, a Cham Muslim woman from Kampong Thom province, raises questions about the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that Cambodia signed with Saudi Arabia last year to open a pipeline of domestic workers to the oil-rich nation.
Saudi Arabia “has a serious problem with human rights violations, including women’s rights violations”, said Moeun Tola, executive director of Central, a labour rights group.
“Look at Malaysia. We have a Cambodian Embassy over there. In Thailand, we have a Cambodian Embassy. But abuse is still happening. What about a country without a consular office or embassy office?”
The maid’s plight became known after the she posted a video to Facebook earlier in August begging for help contacting her family.
In her video and in subsequent interviews with reporters, Rotors described years of abuse and lack of pay. She made it back to Cambodia on Monday after her video went viral and the Ministry of Labour stepped in.
So Farina, a Documentation Center of Cambodia researcher who studies the Cham Muslim community, said women like Rotors may be drawn to Saudi Arabia because the pay is higher than in Malaysia and because they have different opportunities, such as going on the Hajj.
But before agreeing to send Cambodians there, “we need to look at working conditions, environment, culture [and] language”, Farina said.
“You may be better paid but still vulnerable because of a lack of understanding or support from our government and the host country’s government,” she said.
Cambodian officials have not given a timeline on when the MoU with Saudi Arabia will be implemented. Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour and Interior Ministry anti-trafficking official Chou Bun Eng could not be reached yesterday.
But Helen Sworn, founder of anti-trafficking NGO Chab Dai, said there are “massive issues” with the idea. “If you’re looking at protective frameworks, there really aren’t any,” Sworn said. “Many won’t even speak English, never mind Arabic.”
Sworn estimated thousands of Cambodians are likely already working in Saudi Arabia but little is known about who they are or what their working conditions are like there.
Ahmad Yahya, a Cham Muslim community leader and secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, acknowledged that his company, Accept, sent Rotors to Saudi Arabia 12 years ago, but insisted he did not know she was underage.
Yahya said his recruiting agency sent roughly 100 to 200 mostly Cham Muslim men and women to Saudi Arabia over a one-year period before being shut down by the government. He said he stopped tracking the migrants after the company folded, but believes “95 percent” of them returned to Cambodia.
“I wanted my people to have jobs, to have money to survive, to build a house, to have a business,” Yahya said. “That was my intention.”
He claimed Rotors was sent in August 2005 – almost two months before the government revoked the company’s licence – “so that was legal”, he said. He also acknowledged that Cambodia and Saudi Arabia did not have an MoU at the time.
However, the absence of an MoU with Saudi Arabia means that Yahya may have acted illegally in sending Rotors and others to Saudi Arabia, said Tola, who added that recruiting agencies also have to be licensed with the government.
“If [Rotors] was sent to a country with no signed MoU with the Cambodian government, that is illegal,” Tola said. Additional reporting by Yon Sineat