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Workers' rights

November 1, 2011

US-based Human Rights Watch says Cambodia and Malaysia must act to protect thousands of Cambodian women working as domestic servants in Malaysia, where they face an array of appalling abuses with few if any remedies.

An 18-year old woman takes a break during an course on migration issues
Female migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to violenceImage: AP

It is hard to know whether Chain Channi's experience is typical of the thousands of Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia, but it was certainly miserable.

Channi, who has requested that her real name not be mentioned, started working for her employer in October 2009. Her days started at 5 am and often she had to work 22 hours straight. If she finished cleaning the house too quickly, her boss made her start again.

"The wife of the employer shouted and beat me every day. She said I was slow," Channi told Human Rights Watch, adding that the woman would deliver an array of physical punishments including kicking and beating her, and called her "ugly and stupid."

As is common for Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia, Channi's employer kept her passport. The doors were kept locked in the house, and she was forbidden from going outside and talking to the neighbours. She also says that she never received any pay.

These six women are working for women's rights in Cambodia
Several employees keep their workers' passports to stop them from getting awayImage: AP

Action needed

Channi's story is told in the Human Rights Watch report released November 1 in Phnom Penh.

The report – titled "They Deceived Us At Every Step" – lists an array of abuses perpetrated on Cambodian women from the start of the recruitment process to their return to Cambodia months or years later. According to the report, at least 40,000 women and girls have been sent to Malaysia since 2008 as domestic workers.

While not all suffer abuse and some are even happy with their work, the gaps in Malaysia's laws mean those less fortunate can have a truly appalling experience.

Jyotsna Poudyal, Human Rights Watch's women's rights researcher and author of the report, says it documents the abuses and exploitation "at each step of the migration process...Our concerns are basically that women who decide to migrate must be protected."

Problems at home

The problems begin in Cambodia, says Poudyal, where recruitment firms forcibly confine trainees in centers. Women are sometimes given misleading information about what their work will entail. Some families are offered large cash advances, food and livestock in a bid by the firms to ensure their indebtedness.

Underage recruitment is also a problem; Workers in Malaysia must be at least 21 years of age, yet there have been numerous accounts of girls as young as 14 being sent over with false papers.

Indonesian domestic workers who say they have fled from abusive employers spend their afternoon at a shelter inside the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Workers from Indonesia have also suffered at the hands of Malaysian employersImage: AP

Recent raids in Cambodia have uncovered dozens of underage workers. The manager of one agency, VC Manpower Recruitment Agency, was recently jailed for 13 months for illegally detaining underage workers, but according to Human Rights Watch, no such firm has yet had its license revoked.

Recent media reports indicate why that might be: Several firms are owned by family members of senior officials in the very ministries that are meant to police them.

Problems abroad

Few of the of the 28 women interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report felt their experience had been a positive one. Nearly half said they had suffered physical or psychological abuse at the hands of their employers, as Channi did. One of the women interviewed was raped by her employer.

None had received their full salary. The most common complaints were that they were forced to work extraordinarily long hours without any days off, and were given very little food.

Lay Lim, 31, said Malaysia was like a prison. "I felt like I was blessed with a new life when I returned to Cambodia," she said.

The issue of Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia has garnered a much higher profile than in previous years thanks in part to media reports and rights groups. Opposition legislator Mu Sochua, who describes the situation for Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia as "very alarming," believes it is highly possible that people of other nationalities suffer as well.

She says Malaysia knows what is going on and that the country has "closed its eyes for too long."

Local issues

Construction workers from Indonesia work on a site in downtown Kuala Lumpur
Many workers never receive full payImage: AP

Cambodia remains a poor country with few job opportunities. One-third of the population lives below the poverty line, and there are limited options for the 300,000 young people entering the job market annually.

The Cambodian government last month announced a ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia after an avalanche of abuses reported by the media, but Poudyal believes the suspension ought to be temporary as there are so few jobs in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the abuse of domestic workers is a problem both countries must work on together, for example, by ratifying the International Labor Organization's domestic work convention, which protects workers from violence and exploitation. In addition, Cambodia should pass a comprehensive law on migration, and also needs to regulate the recruitment firms and punish those that transgress. The rights watchdog is also appealing to the Malaysian government to amend labor laws to ensure that domestic workers, who are currently excluded from its benefits, are protected by it.

Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Sarah Berning

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