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Migrants Posing as Tourists To Work 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 - Despite a government ban on migrant labor to Malaysia, government officials say many Cambodians are finding their way into the domestic labor market there illegally.

Many are still being sent by recruitment firms under the guise of tourism, exposing them to the dangers of illegal work in Malaysia, including abuse and detention at the hands of employers.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Malaysia, said her delegation found evidence of the fraudulent travel of migrant workers there.

“Their method is to arrange a tour, and when they get to Malaysia, then brokers will subdivide these workers into various places seeking unskilled labor,” she said. “We don’t know where they divide these workers.”

A moratorium on the migration of workers to Malaysia has been in place since October 2011, following widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of employers and Cambodian recruitment agencies accepting underage girls.

Ros Va, national program coordinator of UN Women, said most migrant workers posing as tourists cross Thailand and enter Malaysia over land, moving through the border crossing of Poipet. Some can also go by air, Ros Va said.

Malaysian authorities have also begun to crackdown on unscrupulous recruiting agencies there, which help facilitate tourist visas for people intending to work in the domestic market. Following a crackdown on the Santosa recruitment agency, four Cambodian workers were found and are now awaiting deportation.

Cambodians are tempted by promises of high pay that they can send back home, working with brokers in the countryside and recruitment agencies in Phnom Penh to travel to Malaysia. Many of them are women seeking work as maids, which are in high demand by Malaysia’s growing middle class.

Moeun Tola, director of labor rights at the Community Legal Education Center, said illegal migrants face higher risks and more violations of their rights compared to legal workers.

“They could face human trafficking, and they find it very hard to return to Cambodia, as first they're trying to escape from Malaysian and Thai authorities, and then they face being extorted by Cambodian authorities when they get into Poipet,” he said.

Some 50,000 Cambodians are thought to be working in Malaysia, either legally or illegally, earning between $135 and $200 per month.

Chou Bun Eng said workers posing as tourists are hard to stop, because they have passports, visas and travel budgets like ordinary tourists. Cambodian and Malaysia authorities are negotiating an agreement that would make it easier to send illegal workers back to Cambodia, she said.