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Legal Protections Sought For Cambodian Domestic Workers in Malaysia

Cambodian maid Hok Pov, 31, cries as she speaks during an interview in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (August 16, 2011)
Cambodian maid Hok Pov, 31, cries as she speaks during an interview in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (August 16, 2011)

Human Rights Watch is calling for new legal protections for the thousands of Cambodians who work in Malaysia as domestic workers. Rights workers say both countries must do much more to prevent an array of abuses including physical and sexual violence.


Human Rights Watch workers interviewed 28 women who were employed as domestic workers. Nearly half reported suffering physical or psychological abuse from their employers.

Another three said they were raped - one by her employer.

The common theme is a lack of assistance or legal protection in Malaysia for the thousands of Cambodian women working there.

Human Rights Watch says in Cambodia well-connected recruitment firms forcibly confine women in poor conditions in training centers for months before sending them abroad.

Recruitment firms provide cash advances to families, as well as food and livestock, driving the women into debt bondage. And they charge huge training fees, which takes the women months to work off.


The title of the report, “They Deceived Us At Every Step”, conveys the scale of the dangers the women face, says Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights researcher Jyotsna Poudyal

“The report is basically a comprehensive account of what happens when women decide to travel from Cambodia to Malaysia," said Poudyal. "So it documents the abuses and exploitation at each step of the migration process. Our concerns are basically about women who decide to migrate must be protected, and this report looks into the recruitment steps, and then comes up with concrete recommendations of what could be done to improve the situation.”


Human Rights Watch says as a first step Malaysia and Cambodia should abide by and then ratify the International Labor Organization’s convention on domestic workers, which protects workers from violence and exploitation.

Poudyal says Phnom Penh must draft a comprehensive migration law that addresses issues such as debt bondage, child recruitment and other abuses common to the recruitment side of the industry.

About one-third of the Cambodian population lives below the poverty line, and there are very few jobs available locally for the estimated 300,000 young people who enter the labor market each year. That means conditions are ripe for exploitation, and unscrupulous recruitment firms have taken advantage.

Role of media

After media reports highlighting the serious abuses of Cambodian women in Malaysia, the Cambodian government last month announced a halt to sending domestic workers to Malaysia.

But Poudyal says besides the suspension, which is most likely temporary, Phnom Penh has shown little interest in tackling the problem.

“From our point of view it seems that the government is keen to promote migration, but at the same time extremely reluctant to extend basic protections to its workers," added Poudyal. "So I would say that if Cambodia is serious about being a big exporter of labor then they have to resolve these issues in the long term.”

The abuses can begin even before the workers arrive in Malaysia.

Recent raids on recruitment centers in Cambodia have revealed a litany of abuses, including girls as young as 14 being trained for domestic work in Malaysia. False documents are used to get around the requirement that they need to be 21.

But government action is complicated by the fact several recruitment firms are owned by relatives of those tasked with policing them in the labor and interior ministries.

Human Rights Watch says Phnom Penh must prosecute any and all companies and individuals involved in abuses.


And, Poudyal says Malaysia must overhaul its labor law, which currently excludes domestic workers.

“So we are calling on the Malaysian government to revise those laws so that domestic workers are protected, as well as strengthening the legal assistance for workers who might have been trafficked, who are in a situation of abuse, and then basically revising the sponsorship system which ties the worker to an employer," said Poudyal. "So for instance, if the worker flees abuse, then very likely she would be arrested or deported.

Two years ago Indonesia barred its citizens from working in Malaysia after reports of similar abuses. That action forced Malaysia to ensure that Indonesian domestic workers were awarded protections.

But Cambodians are currently excluded.

Human Rights Watch says that needs to change. Since 2008 at least 40,000 Cambodian women and girls have been sent to Malaysia to work as domestic servants.

One young woman the group interviewed said she was made to work 22 hours a day, was beaten and kicked by her employer and his wife, and was never paid.

None of the 28 women interviewed said they had received their promised salary in full. Most said they received wages that were far lower, while some reported receiving nothing at all.