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Inquiry Finds Abuse of Migrants in Malaysia

Gelia, a maid works in a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, June 17, 2009. At least two women have died in the custody of recruitment firms prior to scheduled departures for Malaysia.
PHNOM PENH - A Cambodian investigative committee has found widespread exploitation and rights violations of Cambodian migrant workers in Malaysia.

The 22-member committee, which included government representatives, rights workers and other agencies, spent two days in Malaysia and found workers vulnerable to overwork, forced labor and sexual exploitation, among other dangers, as more and more Cambodians seek work abroad through negligent recruitment agencies.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, who headed the delegation, said the inquiry found four types of violations. “There are victims of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, overwork and no salary, and forced labor,” she said.

The committee’s findings are consistent with those of other rights groups that have investigated the working conditions in Malaysia, where many Cambodian women from rural areas find work as maids.

“Some laborers have been tortured and abused by the house owners,” said Samleang Seyla, country director of Action for the Children. “For some others, their employers don’t pay their salaries.”

And there is little legal recourse for Cambodian workers in Malaysia if they aren’t paid or are abused, he said. “Some complain about the difficulty finding legal aid. In their view, they are unlikely to win a case, because they don’t have money; and second, it requires a lot of time. That’s why some of them come back to Cambodia without proper legal resolutions.”

Underage girls are also being sent to Malaysia to work, the committee found. At a rescue center in Malaysia, where 13 Cambodians were staying, the committee found a 17-year-old girl who had been working in Malaysia for two years—with no salary.

On the two-day visit, the delegation met with representatives of the Malaysian government, an employers association, the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and with NGOs.

Cambodia issued a moratorium on the recruitment of workers for Malaysia in 2011, following widespread reports of abuse, including the deaths of some workers. Human Rights Watch said in a November report that prior to the ban, girls as young as 13 were being sent to Malaysia through recruitment agencies.

An Bunhak, chairman of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, who joined the delegation, said a lack of training and poor communication lead to misunderstandings between employers and workers. “For example, when they are asked to bring a bowl, they bring a urine pot,” he said. “This in turn makes their bosses angry, leading to violence.”

Cases where underage girls are sent to Malaysia are rare, he said, and in those cases the companies responsible for recruiting them have been shut down.

An estimated 50,000 Cambodian workers, legal and illegal, are thought to be working in Malaysian households, factories and restaurants, earning between $135 and $200 per month.

In Malaysia, the committee interviewed Om Bopha, a senior adviser to the Cambodian Embassy in Malaysia, who said the Ministry of Labor is not properly monitoring the workers who are sent to Malaysia and that some Cambodian recruitment agencies send young workers or untrained workers, with little monitoring.

Chou Bun Eng said there is little follow-up on the transfer of workers, who are moved from a recruitment company in Cambodia to a receiving company in Malaysia and on to a local employer.

“In such hand-to-hand transfer, to what extent is there responsibility?” she asked.