The plight of Cambodian migrant maids who suffer abuse by employers in Malaysia is well documented. Less so is the mental damage caused by the overseas trauma, which has led to some returned migrants being chained up by their desperate families
Young women who survive abuse at the hands of their employers in Malaysia are all but forgotten when they return home, often pushed to the margins of village communities that are unable to cope with or fully understand their enduring trauma.
In Kampong Cham province earlier this month, one such woman, 26-year-old Phat Sokleang, sat in a small wooden outbuilding metres from her family’s home.
As her father approached, she grinned, lifting her frail body in anticipation of what was about to happen.
He crouched down and unlocked a heavy chain attached to her ankle, which had bound her to a wooden post. She muttered excitedly to herself as she made her way towards their house.
Sokleang was just 15 years old when she flew to Malaysia. A happy and compassionate teenager, she was already working as a maid in her hometown when the promise of higher wages that could support her parents and six siblings drew her abroad.
Reports of abuses against domestic workers in Malaysia had not yet filtered down to her rural community, where many families were encouraging loved ones to make the same journey.
Amid Sokleang’s youthful confidence that all would be well and promises of a greater income for the struggling family, her father, San Vat, set aside his initial concerns for her welfare and gave the idea his blessing.
It was a decision he would live to regret. Two months after arriving in Malaysia, a family friend whose number Vat had scribbled on Sokleang’s bag in case of emergency received a panicked call.
She gave no details of what had happened, but said she needed to leave the country immediately.
Weeks later, the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur helped to facilitate her return. But any relief felt by the family was shortlived.
“My daughter was a normal person before working in Malaysia,” Vat said. “She was a different person when she came back.”
At the family home, Sokleang sat next to a boiling pot of water, staring intently at it as her father detailed a decade of erratic behaviour from his second child.
She mumbled in Khmer, sporadically punctuating sentences with a single question in English, a relic of her brief stint in Malaysia: “Do you want a cup of tea?”
According to Vat, since returning to Cambodia, Sokleang has been prone to violent outbursts.
“People in the village feel scared” of her, he said. “A few months ago, she beat my wife and threw things at her.”
She had taken to throwing herself from the porch of their stilt house, walking to the local market naked, or running away and offering her body to passing men she met on the street.
About six years ago, Sokleang began to show signs of recovery. Her parents, apparently eager to seize the moment, arranged for her to be married and she soon became pregnant. But her mental health and the marriage deteriorated. Shortly after giving birth, she returned home.
“When the baby was one month old, she took a taxi with her and went to Phnom Penh. I had to contact local radio stations to find her,” Vat said.
With no government support and little understanding of mental health, locking Sokleang up is the only way her family knows to care for her.
“I have to force myself to shackle her even though I know that it is against the law,” said Vat, who is visibly worn out from the stress of caring for his daughter.
“Sometimes we unshackle her so that she can walk in the village, but her brother and I always follow.”
Suffering in silence
Physical, mental and sexual abuses of domestic workers in Malaysia have been well-documented. Reports of young women being brutally tortured, raped and starved, and of others driven to commit suicide drew widespread condemnation in Cambodia that prompted the government to ban the recruitment of maids there four years ago.
Despite this, almost 8,000 Cambodian women continue to work as maids in Malaysia, according to recent government data. Some chose not to leave the country, others were allegedly pressured by the embassy into staying when attempting to escape, and many have effectively disappeared. An unsanctioned flow of workers to Malaysia persists today.
But while the abuses in Malaysia are well-known, many of those who have returned from the country have never revealed what happened to them.
Sokleang this month quietly recalled patchy memories of long working hours, hunger and fear of her boss, but said she couldn’t remember making the crisis call, or if any specific incident had prompted it.
When asked about details of her time there, she spoke instead of her dreams to “own pretty dresses and a beauty salon”, clapping her hands.
Other survivors have revealed even less. In Pursat province’s Sdok Klork village, 33-year-old Ngem Eab has barely spoken at all since returning from Malaysia two years ago.
Having begged to return to Cambodia only a year after making the move, she came to live with her aunt and uncle. At first, Eab wouldn’t utter a single word. When male visitors came to the house, she would run away and hide.
Tied up by her family for the first few months that she was home, Eab is now physically free, but remains a slave to the demons of her past.
She spends her days lying silently in a hammock, a shadow of the popular, outgoing young woman her family says she used to be.
“I don’t know what they have done to my niece,” Vich Krouch, 45, said as she cast a worried look at Eab, who was staring into the middle distance.
“I feel really sorry for her because she is poor and she wants to earn money to support her siblings, but she can’t because she was handed this terrible fate.”
As was the case with Sokleang, Krouch said her niece was a “normal person” before she moved abroad.
“If she had not gone and worked there, she would have a husband and children like other people do because she’s pretty,” she said.
Sok Phaneth, a clinic manager with Cambodian mental health NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), said “severe traumatic events” often create a “fear of speaking out”.
Major shifts in personality, she added, are most frequently caused by “sexual abuse or torture” but can be affected by factors including the duration of abuse, the previous experiences of the individual, and the emotional, legal and social support available.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive research into the abuse of Cambodian maids in Malaysia, said the enduring psychological scars are evidence of “a total lack of any government support services for traumatised migrant women returning from overseas”.
“These are the women who risked everything to go overseas and try and earn to help their families, and then end up in a totally shattered state, needing constant attention from their relatives,” he said.
“Cambodia wants to gain the benefits of its people going overseas and sending back remittances, but then the government is not prepared to do anything substantive to help them.”
Return or reform?
Despite ongoing cases of abuse and the silent suffering of those able to return home, Cambodia is preparing to sign a new agreement with Malaysia that would reopen the legal pipeline of maids to the country.
It is just one of many deals the Kingdom is currently mulling, which could see thousands of women moving to countries notorious for migrant abuses, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The long-drafted deal with Malaysia, which was originally slated to be signed by the end of 2014, has been stalled for a number of months because of “internal issues”.
But Chuob Narat, deputy director of the labour department at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said this week that it will be completed within the next three months.
The pact, he claimed, will help to reduce instances of abuse and trauma by offering workers greater legal protections, including eight-hour working days, overtime bonuses, and a rest day each week.
He said workers would also be entitled to keep their passports, which have frequently been confiscated by abusive employers in the past to prevent escape.
The draft agreement specifies that workers must be at least 21 years old, have attended “pre-departure training”, and be able to communicate in Malay or English.
Datuk Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, president of the Malaysian National Association of Employment Agencies (PIKAP), said he was “committed” to ensuring that more women are not left traumatised by their employers after the deal is signed.
But while a number of rights observers have supported the legislation, which they said should – if properly enforced – better protect those living there, others still have concerns.
“Without the creation of a real system to monitor and protect Cambodian migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, it doesn’t make sense to send more of them there,” said Robertson of HRW.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour department at the Community Legal Education Centre, said there was little incentive for Malaysia to stringently ensure rights for Cambodian workers.
“Even though the government temporarily stopped sending workers to Malaysia in 2011, they can send the workers there on tourist forms, so Malaysia doesn’t care about signing [a memorandum of understanding] because it has workers working [in] its country as usual.”
The embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached.
In Kampong Cham, Vat was shocked to hear that more women could be encouraged to go down the path that has led to his daughter’s desperate situation.
“I don’t support it, because most women who go there come back with similar problems to my daughter,” he explained, as he watched her wandering aimlessly around the house. “I’m suddenly filled with hatred when I hear the word ‘Malaysia’.”
Sokleang, meanwhile, said she hopes her own daughter, now aged 5, will never be persuaded to work abroad.
“I want her to go to school and open a salon and sell beauty products,” she said.