Cambodia defies ban and sends maids to Malaysia, lawmaker says

Up to 50,000 Cambodian women have migrated to Malaysia since 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Story highlights

  • An opposition lawmaker says officials are defying ban on sending labor to Malaysia
  • A government spokesman calls the practice of sending labor abroad "a learning process"
  • Migrant workers make up more than 20% of Malaysia's total workforce
A Cambodian opposition parliament member says labor recruitment agencies in her country are still sending domestic workers to Malaysia -- despite a recent ban on the practice -- because many government officials either own or have close ties to the companies.
The country's ministries of labor and interior "are not taking any action," Mu Sochua told CNN, noting that "many officials and familial members of some ministers actually own these dubious agencies."
Sochua did not identify the officials, ministers or companies to which she was referring and CNN cannot independently confirm her claim. But a government spokesman called the general practice of sending labor abroad "a learning process."
Last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued the ban after allegations surfaced of mistreatment of workers and corruption, said Phay Siphan, a spokesperson for the country's Council of Ministers.
"We are finding out why it has happened and why it is happening," he added.
Siphan would not comment on the specific allegation that government officials are suspected of being complicit in continuing to defy the order.
The ban was enacted in October shortly after a report by CNN's Dan Rivers examined a recruitment agency in the Cambodian capital that revealed stories of women trapped in debt-bondage in Malaysia.
The story "that aired on CNN has actually awakened the country up the whole country on this human trafficking issue again," said Sochua. "I have to say that his piece is just one little part of the whole problem, which is much worse."
She said the report prompted her to further petition the country's leadership to take action.
The country's premier later announced the ban on October 14.
But, Sochua contends, the practice continues.
Just three days after the announcement, at least 25 Cambodian maids, wearing shirts emblazoned with name of a domestic worker recruiting agency, checked in for an Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to the Cambodian human rights group Licadho.
"It is a heartbreaking story," said Sochua. "I constantly meet with many parents who come to tell me that they don't know where their girls are, they simply disappeared and lost contacts with families after girls left to Malaysia."
Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser with Licadho, said the women are often subject to poor treatment in facilities that can be "run like a prison."
"If they fall sick, family members are being asked to pay what we call ransom for them to receive medical treatment outside the company," he said. There's been multiple reports of undernourishment in these companies, he added.
Up to 50,000 Cambodian women have migrated to Malaysia since 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Recruitment agencies, the report said, often forge identification papers in an effort to recruit children, charge "excessive recruitment fees" and mislead workers about potential opportunities.
Some workers, it added, also endure sexual abuse by their employers.
In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, CNN found women who say they had escaped, relaying stories of dozens of other workers stuck in similar circumstances, unable to get home unless they paid off their "debt" to a recruitment agency.
Sochua said in one instance in March she alerted police of an agency following reports that it had "tortured and detained girls, including many under-aged girls."
But, she said, it still took authorities eight months to rescue the girls.
CNN cannot independently confirm that account and Cambodian police were not immediately available to comment on the allegation.
A similar ban against sending domestic labor to Malaysia was imposed by Indonesia in June 2009, following a series of high-profile abuse cases, according to a separate Human Rights Watch report.
A revised agreement between the two countries in May sought to improve benefits for migrant workers, but Indonesia has not lifted the ban.
Migrant workers account for more than 20% of Malaysia's total workforce, according to a 2010 Amnesty International report.