Kampong Cham province
THE houses in Prek Kruos village are modest dwellings, patched together with wood or thatched leaves. There are no cars to be seen; few families own motorbikes.
This is one of the poorest villages in Kampong Cham’s Sokorng commune, in Kang Meas district, local officials say. But business here has been good for one person.
Ein Chhunly is a recruiter for a labour agency that trains and sends domestic workers to Malaysia. She started working in January and has already recruited 20 women, she said.
“There aren’t many jobs here,” Ein Chhunly said. “Most women work in the farms. They can make only 10,000 riels [US$2.50] each day. It’s not much. So if the parents ask me to help them, I’ll do it.”
Observers say Cambodia’s labour export sector has seen a rapid expansion of late, fuelled in part by Indonesia’s decision last year to prevent its citizens from working as domestic servants in Malaysia, a major employer of household maids.
But although Cambodia licences its labour firms, critics say efforts have not gone far enough to prevent abuses.
In July, police raided two Phnom Penh recruitment agencies after women escaped from their training centre and said they had been forced to live in cramped conditions and barred from leaving.
The government has promised a major revamp of the regulations. But in the meantime, agencies are still actively recruiting young women.
‘I have a chance to help’ In neighbouring Angkor Ban commune, Yu Khorn gestures towards a large wooden house that dwarfs its neighbours. “The lady that lives here used to work in Malaysia,” he said. “Now she’s back. She had some savings and now she’s built a house.”
Yu Khorn started working as a broker for a licenced agency last August. He said he has heard reports of women who say they were treated poorly in training centres, or abused when they started their jobs in foreign countries – but he doesn’t believe them.
Yu Khorn shared a pamphlet he gives to prospective workers. The brochure shows photos of young women holding out fistfuls of US dollars, the bills spread into fans.
“I have a chance to help people in my community to be trained and get more income,” Yu Khorn said.
But Seng Khuy, Angkor Ban’s commune chief, said officials are apprehensive about the brokers, who have been active only in the past year. Lately, local newspapers have been running troublesome stories.
“I read about a lady who jumped from a building to escape,” Seng Khuy said. “But that’s just what the newspaper says. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know.”
In villages throughout this area, the decision to leave the country for work is prompted by a lack of options at home.
Lay Limheang, who returned from Malaysia earlier this year, said she struggled to make ends meet in her previous job in the garment sector.
Last year, a broker convinced her to sign up with a recruitment agency in Phnom Penh. She could double her monthly salary, she was promised.
But after two months in Malaysia, her life became “hell”, she said. Lay Limheang was taught basic English during her training. But her employers in Malaysia spoke to her only in Chinese. When she made mistakes, they responded with violence, she said.
“They used a belt to beat me. The husband slapped me. Once, they hit me until blood came out,” she said.
At one point, she said, her ear was twisted until it swelled into a bulbous lump. Her employers took her to the hospital. “When I told the doctor what happened, he just kept quiet,” she said. One day, her employers told her to pack her bags. She was put on a plane and flown back to Cambodia, her pockets empty. It had been eight months; she was never paid for her work.
Earlier this month, staff members of the NGO Community Legal Education Centre agreed to represent their first domestic worker clients – including Lay Limheang.
“I think it is a problem, but so far few people are making noise,” said Moeun Tola, the head of CLEC’s labour programme. “But now people are paying more attention.”
One industry figure acknowledges that there are significant problems to be addressed.
“We think a lot must be improved to protect migrant workers,” said An Bunhak, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies.
The biggest constraint, he said, is that the rules governing recruitment firms are contained in an inadequate 1995 sub-decree that contains no guidelines for basic conditions at training centres. There are no rules about labour firms’ qualifications. And although the Labour Law makes it illegal for employers to hire people to work off debt, there is no explicit language in the sub-decree regarding loans or debts.
But An Bunhak said authorities are serious about modernising the labour export industry. The government has formed a committee, on which he sits, to produce a dramatically revamped sub-decree on recruitment agencies.
Despite the current problems, An Bunhak said, domestic work presents a valuable opportunity for Cambodians – one that shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. “Workers may make $70 in the garment factories. When they go abroad they can get $300 or more. The gap is so big. Overseas migration is contributing to economic development in the households,” he said.
‘Like flying a kite’
Back in Prek Kruos village, a small crowd surrounded Ein Chhunly as she unfolded a scrap of paper. She held up a photocopied picture of her eldest daughter, Seng Sreytouch.
The labour agency broker said she, too, had sent her daughters, 21 and 19, to work in Malaysia. Both had held jobs in garment factories, but they had struggled just to survive. So she signed them up with her own recruitment agency.
Though her daughters have yet to send money – the firm is deducting their wages for six months, she said, to pay for their plane tickets and other bills – they have sent word.
On the back of the paper is a handwritten note. She’s happy, Sreytouch wrote; her employers in Malaysia treat her like their own children.
Ein Chhunly said many young women in Prek Kruos are eager to go abroad, but they’re waiting to see what her daughters have to say.
For now, she said, she hasn’t decided if sending her children to Malaysia was the right move.
“I’m not even sure,” she said. “It’s just like flying a kite in the sky.”