PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The scar on Porn Sothea's bottom lip has turned into a permanent lump, while her arms and lower legs bear recently healed wounds and bruises.
She has only just returned to Cambodia after working for two years as a live-in maid in Kuala Lumpur, a job assignment that became a harrowing ordeal.
Sothea, 23, signed up for the work in late 2009, believing it would offer a way out of the dire poverty in her village in central Cambodia. Three months after arriving in Malaysia, however, her employer began to subject her to physical abuse and extreme working hours.
"Every part of my body was tortured at one time," Sothea said in December, a few days after she returned. "She punched me in my mouth and face many times, used a thin piece of metal to hit my back, and she grabbed my hair to hit my head against the wall," she said.
Experiences like Sothea's are common among Cambodian migrant maids. During the past year, human rights groups have been overwhelmed with complaints of abuse and exploitation of maids by Malaysian employers and the Cambodian job agencies that recruit the workers.
Such abuses, critics say, are indicative of the lack of legal protection for the hundreds of thousands women who migrate from the poorest Southeast Asian countries to work as maids in the wealthier nations in the region.
With no opportunity to call her family or her job recruitment agency, which only visited her once toward the end of her employment, Sothea was isolated in her employer's home. Escape was difficult because under Malaysian law, a migrant's working permit is bound to the employer, who also keeps the worker's passport.
Only when she was informed in late November that her contract was up did Sothea realize that the nightmare was over. She was given back her passport and promptly put on a flight to Cambodia.
The complaints over the treatment of Cambodian women has surged after the number of Cambodian maids working in Malaysia rose sharply in recent years, jumping from a few thousand three years ago to between 40,000 and 50,000 maids in late 2011, according to figures from Malaysian human rights group Tenaganita.
Malaysian demand for Cambodian maids increased after Indonesia banned sending its workers there in June 2009, following a string of high-profile abuse cases. Until then, Indonesia supplied most of the approximately 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Malaysia, one of the wealthiest nations in Southeast Asia, where cheap foreign labor is in high demand.
As the flow of Cambodian maids to Malaysia grew, so did the number of complaints of abuse.
Read more: 300 Cambodian families forced from homes.
"We have received over 40 complaints [in 2011] regarding sexual, physical and mental abuse, illegal confinement, and dead and missing maids," said Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center's labor program, a rights groups in Cambodia. "It's much higher than the past year," he said.
Rights groups say the increase in abuse is the result of Cambodia's failure to regulate its expanding migrant recruitment sector and Malaysia's unwillingness to protect the rights of migrant maids.
According to a report on the plight of Cambodian migrant maids, released by New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) in November, this lack of regulations had lead to "abuse at every step of the migration cycle for Cambodian workers."
HRW said it is not uncommon for maids to end up as modern day slaves, as "in some cases, these [abuses] combine to create situations that amount to forced labor, trafficking, or debt bondage."
A regional problem
Across the ASEAN region, about 900,000 women from Cambodia, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines work as migrant maids in wealthier countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei, according to Sinapan Samydoria, convenor of the Singapore-based Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers.
Many of these women are at risk of mistreatment during employment, Samydoria said, since domestic work — by local or foreign maids — is not recognized as work under the labor laws of destination countries, which means that basic working conditions like days off, set working hours and overtime pay are absent.
"In most [ASEAN] countries, traditionally, they look upon them as servants, or maids with no labor conditions. They work them 12, 16, 18 hours, abuse them, without proper living space, privacy, not even pay sometimes," Samydoria said during a recent interview.
This is unlikely to change any time soon, he said, as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia abstained in June last year from voting on the International Labor Organization's Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Work, a new convention that calls for recognizing domestic work as "formal work."
Andy Hall, an expert at the Institute of Population and Social Research at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said most labor-exporting ASEAN countries meanwhile, were doing little to protect their migrant workers. He said they had failed to properly regulate migrant labor recruitment, and have neither pushed for the creation of an ASEAN regional agreement to safeguard migrants, who enjoy little protection in the region.
"Even in more advanced migrant-sending countries like the Philippines, [agencies] are mostly unregulated [and] place migrants in dangerous conditions to meet demand at the lowest costs," Hall said in a recent email. "Cambodia is particularly poor at regulating agencies and protecting its citizens working abroad," he added.
Unregulated recruitment in Cambodia, unprotected work in Malaysia
After Indonesia banned the sending of maids to Malaysia in 2009, Cambodia's recruitment sector expanded rapidly, but the government in Cambodia — one of Asia's poorest countries, where government institutions and rule of law are weak — failed to regulate the booming sector.
With little government oversight, dozens of unscrupulous agencies recruited tens of thousands women from poor rural communities, who were lured with salaries of up to $200 per month and immediate benefits such as bags of rice, mobile phones and cash advances of several hundred dollars — a huge amount in a country where about one-third of the population lives below the national poverty line of $0.60 per day.
Recruits were deceived into signing debt-bondage contracts, while agencies also regularly recruited underage girls, sometimes only 14 years old, by forging fraudulent identity papers.
After signing up, recruits were confined to walled and guarded centers for the duration of pre-departure training programs, which workers were only allowed to leave if they paid between $500 and $1,000, to pay for their loans and the supposed costs of their training and travel preparations.
"Illegal confinement [of recruits] happens in every center," said Tola, from the Community Legal Education Center, which has documented the agencies' illegal practices in dozens of cases.
"The recruiters target only the poor people ... They provide them an attractive amount of money," he said. "That this amount is a loan is only explained to the trainee on the day of departure or when they want to return to their village."
Moeun Vy, a 29-year-old mother of two, recounted how she was recruited by a broker in her village in September and kept at a training center of SKMM agency in Phnom Penh.
"He said: If you go to work in Malaysia you can earn a lot of money and the work is easy. The company would give me a 1 million Riel loan [$250]," Vy recalled. "I had no choice, my family is poor, and so I decided to come with the broker."
"A week later I began to regret it," she said, explaining that recruits at the center received little food, were subjected to harsh corporal punishment if they failed to memorize their English lessons and could only leave if they paid a $500-fee for breach of contract.
"They took away all our phones... The security locked the gates. The trainees were living like they were locked in a cell," Vy said. Before they were sent off to Malaysia, however, Vy and 77 of her fellow trainees—including 18 underage recruits—were freed during a police raid on the agency in late October.
The Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies has denied that the agencies’ recruitment methods have seriously violated workers' rights. "We don't agree that we have bad practices, but we have some weak points," its president An Bunhak said recently, adding that the sector nonetheless planned to overhaul its future operations.
Reports of mistreatment of Cambodian maids has also increased rapidly in Malaysia in recent years.
Liva Shreedharan, program officer at Tenaganita, said last year alone, the organization rescued 71 Cambodian maids in Malaysia from abusive employers, while nine maids had reportedly died during employment under unclear circumstances. All rescued workers, she said, "showed clinical signs of anxiety and depression."
Shreedharan said some Malaysian employers tend to inflict abuse because they look down on Cambodian maids — who usually have little formal education and limited English-language skills — and because they know that foreign maids enjoy little legal protection. Authorities rarely prosecute employers for such abuse.
"It's definitely [happening] because of a lack of regulations and the fact that they can get away with it," she said, adding that some employers told her that they terrorize maids "because they have no education, they're stupid."
Malaysian authorities so far investigated five of the nine deaths of maids and informed the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry that these deaths were all due to suicide and illness, conclusions that have raised questions among rights groups and some Cambodian politicians. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia said in December it had opened an investigation into one of the deaths.
Malaysian officials stress however, that the cases of abuse of foreign maids are isolated incidents that are being dealt with. "I can say that the majority of them [Cambodian maids] have a good experience," said Raja Saiful Ridzuwan, deputy chief of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Cambodia. "We prosecute the bad employers; the Malaysian government does not take these matters lightly."
Back in Cambodia, family members usually go without hearing from the maids for months or years, as Cambodian job recruitment agencies rarely keep in touch with their workers, who usually see no opportunity to contact family. Distraught families often fear that their daughters have gone missing, which in some cases turns out to be true.
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Mei Sareth, who lives in a village in central Cambodia, said she had inquired with Cambodian recruitment agency Cambodian Labor Supply last August about her niece Seng Dani, 22, because she had not been heard from since she left for Malaysia in July 2010.
To her horror, the agency contacted her a month later to tell her that Dani had committed suicide by jumping from its office building in Kuala Lumpur. Sareth finds this explanation hard to accept. "I don't believe my niece committed suicide, I think it was a murder," she said.
A better future for Cambodian migrant maids?
Throughout 2011, rights groups and Cambodian opposition lawmakers leveled numerous complaints at the Cambodian and Malaysian government for their failure to protect maids and prosecute abusers, while a stream of media articles exposed the mistreatment of workers.
After many months of inaction, the Cambodian government late last year finally began to take the plight of the maids more seriously. In September police began to raid several agencies. On Oct. 16, Prime Minister Hun Sen indefinitely suspended the recruitment and sending of Cambodian maids to Malaysia.
The decision was welcomed by critics, but many considered it "too little, too late," while questions remain over the Cambodian government’s commitment and ability to improve protection for its migrants.
Mu Sochua, a Cambodian opposition lawmaker and former Minister of Women Affairs, said the Cambodian ban had been a "really adhoc" measure in reaction to mounting public pressure.
“There has been no coordinated, sustained response,” Sochua said, adding that businessmen in the recruitment sector had escaped prosecution over the abuses because of their political connections and corruption within Cambodian law enforcement and judiciary.
"When human rights issues happen, [the government] does nothing. We're talking about a culture of impunity," she said.
The Cambodian government is nonetheless trying to use the ban as leverage in its negotiations with Malaysia in order to reach an agreement that would offer improved working conditions for Cambodian maids there.
"Our condition is that the suspension will continue until the [agreement] is signed," Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Kuoy Kong said. "We want Cambodian workers to be protected so that they can work with dignity."
Malaysia has said it will listen to Cambodia’s demands, but there are concerns that Cambodia might have to accept the same conditions as Indonesia, which reached an agreement with Malaysia in December. This new agreement has already been criticized as offering limited protection to Indonesian maids.
Rights groups are now maintaining the pressure on Cambodia and Malaysia to improve safeguards for workers in the hope that the Cambodian ban could become a turning point in the protection of Cambodian migrant maids.
“Cambodia and Malaysia governments need to develop mechanisms to handle these abuses,” HRW's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said. "Inaction means that more maids' rights will be abused, and impunity to abuse will continue without respite."
Khuon Narim contributed reporting to this story.