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Southeast Asia: migrant maids as modern day slaves

As the number of Cambodian maids heading to Malaysia increases, so do complaints of abuse.

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.