Saudi Arabia – a country rife with human rights abuses and lacking a Cambodian embassy – has long played host to a small number of Cambodian maids, mostly from the Muslim Cham community. As an agreement between the countries set to regulate work arrangements stalls in bureaucratic red tape, domestic workers continue to trickle into the Middle Eastern kingdom through time-tested unofficial channels, with concerning consequences.
This week, Vert Py was worried, and with good reason. Her daughter, Math Savi – who is employed as a maid in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with few contacts and no access to her passport – had not called her in four days.
Saudi Arabia and Cambodia signed an agreement laying the groundwork for a legal pipeline for domestic workers to the Middle Eastern kingdom three months ago, but the mechanism has yet to be implemented. According to the Ministry of Labour, “safeguards” for women have yet to be developed.
“There are no legal workers in Saudi Arabia,” ministry spokesman Heng Sour told Post Weekend this week. And without legal status, domestic workers are on their own.
“Any individual who goes there on their own will, they have to bear their own responsibility,” he said. The ministry encouraged any Cambodian citizen experiencing “issues” in Saudi Arabia to file a complaint, Sour added.
But Savi, 28, has little recourse for such complaints. There is no Cambodian embassy in Riyadh. Until now, she has only been able to communicate with those back home in Kandal province via Facebook messages, and then only in rare moments when she can speak in private.
Her family – including a young daughter – last saw Savi 18 months ago, when she travelled to the airport with two other women – both of whom have since returned to Cambodia.
In the year and a half that she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Savi has moved workplaces twice: first with help from the recruiters, and later when she fled on her own from exploitation.
Her second boss kept her passport. Without identifying documents, Savi is trapped – and her new employers have threatened to contact the authorities in the coming days. So for now, her mother waits.
A religious recruitment network
The old mosque in Cham Leu village, where Savi grew up, is modest, with a sign outside denoting plans for a Gulf state-funded remodel. In late 2014, three recruiters appeared at its gates, accompanied by a wealthy Saudi Arabian donor. He wanted a woman to work in his house, they said.
The recruiters had visited the village before, according to Vert Py, but had only advertised assistance for making hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This time, they asked the local imam, La Sales, to gauge interest among women in the village for a position as a domestic worker.
Savi was keen to go, despite her family’s objections. She was recently divorced and a new mother, and had previously earned money for her family in a factory in Thailand. She wanted to leave again. Within a few weeks, Savi was gone. “I have only one daughter,” Py said in an interview at her home this week. “I told her not to go but she didn’t listen to us.”
Cham interest in migrating to Saudi Arabia for work is on the increase, according to Farina So, a researcher who heads the Cham Oral History Project at DC-Cam. She guesses only a few hundred women work there now, though no official record exists. But with news of the recent memorandum of understanding, So expects this cohort to swell alongside a growing number of local labour-recruitment companies.
Women seek to become domestic workers in Saudi Arabia for many reasons, So said: money, religious similarity, the chance to complete hajj. For those funding themselves, making a pilgrimage from Cambodia can cost upwards of $3,500.
“Many [Cham] young men go abroad, especially to the Gulf region, to study. It is interesting to see this opportunity open to women,” she added.
But the local brokers who helped women travel to Saudi Arabia for years before talks for an agreement began are only adding to the Middle Eastern country’s bad reputation as a work destination.
The recruiters that came to her village promised Savi a job as an “assistant” in the Saudi donor’s home with a $300 salary, plus care for her mother and young daughter, and assistance in making the hajj once she had lived there for a year. But when she arrived, she was assigned to a different house with long days of backbreaking work – prompting her to make her first move.
Much of the money Savi has earned has not been passed on to her family. Py received $100 after her daughter’s first month of work, and has since not been able to reach the men. “They broke the promise,” she said.
When reached by Post Weekend yesterday, Savi expressed regret at her decision to work in Saudi Arabia. Without papers, she cannot flee the country and fears being sent to prison. Since moving to her new workplace six weeks ago, she has also been unable to contact the men who recruited her for the job – those who she thought she could depend on for help. “I really want to come home,” she said on a voice call. “I feel hopeless.”
A legal ‘grey area’
With the MoU in legal limbo, recruitment companies registered with Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour are not legally permitted to recruit, train or send workers to Saudi Arabia.
There is no timeline for the implementation of the maid agreement, according to ministry spokesman Sour, and it has not been released publicly. An MoU signed with Malaysia in December, which ended a four-year ban on Cambodian domestic workers in the country, is entangled in similar red tape.
But of the 65 recruitment companies approved by the ministry, 16 are already licensed to send workers to the Gulf region, according to an official ministry document. When contacted by Post Weekend, each of these companies denied recruiting domestic workers for Saudi Arabia.
Recruitment firms have long been accused of conflicts of interest. Some of them have deep ties to powerful members of the Cham community. Human Resources Development Ltd (HRD), which holds a licence for the Gulf region, and HRD offshoot Formis Manpower, Co Ltd, are owned by Ismail Hassan and Imran Hassan respectively – both brothers of Othsman Hassan, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour who travelled to Riyadh when the MoU was signed. Othsman Hassan declined to comment for this story.
Imran Hassan, of Formis Manpower, said that he had been approached by more workers considering the journey to Saudi Arabia in recent months, though he had not processed their applications. “We have not heard from the working-group meeting,” he added.
Recruitment companies – formal and informal – often operate in a legal “grey area”, said William Conklin, country director of worker advocacy group Solidarity Center. They usually charge large training fees and offer “loans”, putting workers into debt they must earn back.
And in the case of the new agreement, their primary concern may not be worker safety. “These are not social welfare organisations. The bottom line is profit,” Conklin said this week.
For those seeking to protect workers, a prioritisation of profit over women’s safety raises concerns.
“There was no participation from NGO partners to draft the MoU, and no clear mechanism to deal with problems happening to workers,” said Dy Thehoya, a program officer at labour rights group Central.
Informal recruitment routes
A cluster of unmarked recruitment company offices can be found around the Al-Serkal mosque at Boeung Kak, according to Farina So, of DC-Cam. “In fact, most of the companies are based around there,” she explained.
The neighbourhood reflects the complex web surrounding travel between Cambodia and Saudi Arabia. Many Cham-owned travel companies that dot the nearby streets can arrange for visas to Saudi Arabia; they advertise mainly for hajj.
The director of one of these companies, who declined to be named, said via phone this week that his agency “can help maids go to Saudi Arabia”, too. The company sends passports to the embassy in Hanoi, he added. But upon a visit to the agency this week, the director denied facilitating work abroad.
Those who do make the journey, like Savi, are most often helped along by local brokers in the provinces. These brokers are sometimes employed by recruitment companies as sub-agents, according to Solidarity Center’s Conklin. “And they can disappear even more easily than recruiters can,” he added.
With such unofficial operations, workers may have no one to turn to when problems arise. “In the informal recruitment routes, the only protections that exist depend on who you know, and whether they will look out for you if you encounter an abusive employer,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
In Savi’s case, neither she nor her family knew which company the village recruiters were working for, or if they were affiliated with one at all. Her mother believes they came from Kampong Cham, though they disclosed few details.
Savi first travelled from the village to an office in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district masquerading as a massage parlor. After a week, she flew to Bangkok – where she remained for a month awaiting her visa from the Saudi Arabian Embassy there. And then she went to Riyadh. She received no training.
The recruiters have since travelled between Saudi Arabia and Cambodia, according to Savi’s family. When Vert Py returned to their massage-parlor front in Phnom Penh to collect her money a second time, she found that it had disappeared.
A dangerous destination Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a dangerous place for domestic workers has been well-documented: although NGOs are thin on the ground, they have recorded cases of physical abuse, torture and murder of foreign employees. Four countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, have banned citizens from working in the Middle Eastern kingdom out of safety concerns.
In October of last year, Saudi Arabia added 38 amendments to its labour law, aimed to crack down on employers who violate regulations. The law does not apply to domestic workers. Furthermore, the country operates with a kafala, or visa sponsorship system, by which an employer is responsible for a worker’s visa status – the reason Savi has lost access to her passport.
Even some recruitment companies are deterred by Saudi Arabia’s reputation. An Bunhak, the president of Top Manpower Ltd, said he didn’t plan to apply for a licence. “Look through the reports for [Saudi Arabia],” he said via phone this week. “I am not confident about sending my workers there.”
But the MoU has been signed, and these issues will only be magnified by Cambodia’s lack of diplomatic representation in the country, according to observers.
“The biggest concern is that there is no Cambodian embassy there,” said Hoya, of Central. “How can there be . . . any intervention from Cambodian officials when they have a problem?”
“The whole idea of sending Cambodian workers to Saudi Arabia is going to be a human-rights disaster . . . I expect the worst,” said Robertson, of Human Rights Watch. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to regularly fail to offer any serious protection to women when they are overseas,” he added.
In February, just before the MoU was signed, a Cambodian domestic worker, Him Srey, returned to Kampong Cham from Saudi Arabia with such complaints: physical and financial abuse, after just one month’s employment. She fled via the Cambodian Embassy in Kuwait.
For others, like Savi, such a journey may prove impossible.But back home, those in waiting deliver the policy line. “Saudi Arabia needs thousands of people to work there,” said Imran Hassan, of Formis. “And maybe next month, we can start recruiting workers.”
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