Cambodia and Saudi Arabia on Thursday signed a memorandum of understanding to begin work on opening a pipeline for Cambodians to work in the gulf nation, which has been routinely criticised for failing to protect migrant domestic workers from abysmal treatment and slave-like conditions.
The Cooperation Agreement on the Recruitment of Domestic Workers and General Workers was signed by the two countries’ labour ministries on Thursday, Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour confirmed yesterday.
Photos posted on social media, show Cambodia Labour Minister Ith Samheng and his Saudi counterpart, Mufrej Al-Haqbani, at the signing ceremony in Riyadh.
“This agreement will bring benefit both countries’ labour sectors,” Samheng posted on Facebook on February 10.
“Our Cambodian people will have the opportunity to consider working there. The MoU will create legal rights protection for workers following national and international standards.”
The MoU, which has been in the works since 2014, is the first step in creating a legal avenue for Cambodian migrants to work in Saudi Arabia, where human rights groups have documented numerous cases of abuse of domestic workers from developing countries, including slave-like conditions, torture and killings.
In October, India lodged a formal complaint with Saudi Arabia after one of its citizens working as a maid there had her arm cut off by her employer.
“This is bad news,” Moeun Tola, executive director of Central (Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights), said yesterday.
“It’s concerning … in Cambodia, we have enough experience of sending maids to Malaysia without proper mechanisms or transparent management, and then we repeat the issue with Singapore … Saudi Arabia is much worse than Malaysia or Singapore, we need to be very careful.”
In December, Cambodia signed an agreement to resume the legal flow of domestic workers to Malaysia, putting an end to a four-year ban introduced amid reports of serious migrant abuses, which had led to multiple deaths.
Many Cambodian families are dependent on money from relatives working abroad, with the World Bank estimating Cambodia’s total remittances doubled to $731 million last year.
With Cambodians already travelling to the Gulf state to work illegally, William Conklin, from labour rights group the Solidarity Centre, said it was better to regulate the process, though he added that “one would hope they’re not promoting workers to go to Saudi Arabia given its track record”.
“A lot of work needs to be done, especially by the Foreign Ministry, for the government to figure out who will look after Cambodian workers when they get in trouble – not if, but when they get in trouble in Saudi Arabia,” Conklin said, noting that Cambodia has no embassy in the country.
Cambodia’s embassy in Kuwait is currently working to repatriate Him Srey, a 39-year-old domestic worker from Cambodia’s Muslim Cham minority, who said she had toiled for her Saudi employer with little food for a fraction of her promised salary.
Sour, of the Labor Ministry, has previously told the Post that no workers would be sent to Saudi Arabia until a bilateral agreement detailing safeguards had been signed.