Every day after school, Puoet Sokhea comes home to a ramshackle hut in Rovieng district, Preah Vihear province, and begins her daily chores. She stokes the fire, washes pots and pans, sets the rice to boil. She has nine brothers and sisters, her parents and an aging grandmother—and few opportunities to help support them.
So earlier this year Puoet Sokhea thought she might help take care of her family by finding work as a maid in Malaysia. She is only 17 years old, but she faked her age to get around Malaysia's laws, which require her to be 21.
“I wanted to go to earn money for fixing my house and buying bicycles for my brothers so they can go to school,” she said on a recent evening as she peeled vegetables for dinner.
Puoet Sokhea is like many Cambodian women in her village. She is poor, desperate and without a means of livelihood beyond the farm.
Young women and girls like here are now seeking work as domestic labor in Malaysia, a practice encouraged by Cambodia as a way to offset unemployment woes in a growing population.
But even the very young have found it easy to get around age limits meant to prevent them from going. Meanwhile, some girls who have gone say they met with serious abuses and were left on their own once they got there.
Puoet Sokhea's mother, Buo Lin, says she agreed to let her daughter go, even though she was underage.
“After she insisted so much, I just let her go because she said she wanted to bring back some money to buy a mechanical cow and build our house,” she said.
Puoet Sokhea went through the local recruiter here. Sia Tri Kuoy and his wife, Ton Rann, say they are not responsible for false paper work or for the girls who go to Malaysia once they get there.
The two operate out of a small wooden house in Rovieng town, which neighbors point to as the local brothel. On a recent afternoon, the two sat down for an interview as a clutch of girls sat idly nearby, their faces painted white, playing cards or lying in hammocks.
“I am no one,” Sia Tri Kuoy said. “I just send the workers to the company, so whatever happens to the workers, good or bad, I don't know because I am just a staffer.”
The chief of Reaksmey commune, Sok Luy, told VOA Khmer by phone that he has no choice but to help girls like Puoet Sokhea, even if it means falsifying documents to fake their age.
In the end, Puoet Sokhea was warned off of Malaysia by a girl who called her and warned her that serious abuse can happen to maids there.
She came back from maid training in Phnom Penh and has returned to class. At least for now.
But there are many women across Cambodia who do go. About 20,000 Cambodians have gone to Malaysia so far this year, mostly for work, a number four times larger than the year before.
And recruitment agencies have sprouted up to draw young women in. There are at least 31 different firms registered with the Ministry of Labor, and an unknown number of unregistered.
Recruiters promise high-paying jobs in Malaysia, which needs workers to serve a growing class of professionals. But Malaysia has a terrible record with abuse, and Indonesia has banned its own workers from going there as a result.
The rights group Licadho says it was called in on 83 different cases of Malaysian abuse in the first nine months of this year.
Pung Kek, the president of the group, says the Ministry of Labor needs to do more to make sure companies are not abusing the rights of workers.
“If the government would send its officials to accompany company staff and the migrant workers to Malaysia, there would be no problems,” she said.
The Labor Ministry says it is drafting a subdecree that will help protect workers from unscrupulous agencies and help support the women once they go abroad.
But that has yet to happen, and more stories of abuse keep coming in.
Down the road, Puoet Sokhea’s neighbor, Tay Champei, spends most of her days at home, regretting ever going to Malaysia. She was gone for seven months, and in that time she went through four bad bosses, she said in a recent interview, smiling nervously and balling her hand in and out of a fist.
When Tay Champei returned about three months ago, she said, she was so traumatized she did not recognize her own mother. She is getting better, slowly, but now she sits in the house most of the day, waiting for evening, so that she can feed the family pig. The sun hurts her head, she said, and now she can’t work at all.
“I saw a lot of things at the agency before I was sent to my boss's house,” she said of her arrival in Malaysia. “A very bad Khmer-language trainer beat sick or crazy girls. He said they were pretending. And I had a very miserable time, eating only porridge every morning, every day. In the porridge, there was only chilies and cabbage, no cooked rice.”
She said after she arrived at her employer's, he forced her to work at his house and his shop. She was poorly fed, and things went from bad to worse.
“After working for about a month, I was beaten by my boss,” she said. “He hit me and poured boiling water over my hands.”
“I still remember one night he threatened to call police to beat me, and then the next morning the police did come and pointed a gun at my head and hit me unconscious,” she said.
She said her last employer sent her back to the company, accusing her of secretly having run away from home. At the company, she was confined to a freezing room and beaten more, she said. She was beaten unconscious again and awoke in a psychiatric hospital, where she was treated for two weeks before she was sent back to Cambodia.
Her mother, Sao Orn, said she had hoped her daughter would come back with some money to help the family. She and her husband work for weeks at a time in a small hut in the forest, tending rice that grows out of the hard ground and growing pumpkins and chili peppers.
Sao Orn was shocked to see her daughter’s condition when she was finally sent back.
“She was normal before leaving home, but why does she become like crazy after returning from abroad?” she said.
Seng Sethychey, director-general of the TSE in Phnom Penh, denied that any violence or wrongdoing was done to Tay Champei.
“No agency abused her; nor did our company commit anything against her,” he said in a phone interview. “It's herself making trouble in Malaysia. If anyone had abused her, we would have informed our [Cambodian] embassy there.”
The company had given Tay Champei’s family $500 for treatment, he said.
That’s little consolation for Sao Orn, who has lodged a complaint against the company.
“Five hundred dollars,” she said, “is not equal to my daughter’s life.”