Cambodia: Hopes High for Maid Program

In one corner of the cavernous training centre, a woman patiently strips the baby blue sheets off a queen-size bed, removing the flower-patterned pillowcases and folding them neatly to one side.

Under the watchful eye of an instructor, she then remakes the bed, carefully fluffing the pillows and making sure the bed sheet is tightly tucked under the mattress so no creases show.

Nearby in the “living room”, another group of young women set a mock dinner table, complete with soup bowls, condiment dishes and even fake fruit.

Next to them, in the “nursery”, a plastic baby doll is carefully washed in a tub, its diaper changed, baby powder applied and then dressed in a set of matching pyjamas.

This faux home, set up at the training facility of local recruitment agency Philimore Cambodia on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is used to train domestic workers who will soon be sent to Singapore.

It has certain destination-appropriate distinctions, such as well-appointed living rooms with big-screen televisions, and even an area where the women can practise hanging laundry out of an apartment window.

While such stringent training might seem excessive, nine Indonesian maids tragically fell to their deaths from high-rise buildings in Singapore during the first half of last year, and Singaporean employers are known to be exacting.

Under a pilot project signed 10 months ago between the Cambodian government and Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, 400 maids will ink two-year contracts to work in Singaporean households by February.

If it goes well, tens of thousands of Cambodian women could eventually end up on Singaporean shores.

Three Cambodian agencies are participating in the scheme: Philimore, Ung Rithy Group and Sok Leap Metrey.

Both Ung Rithy Group – headed by the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA) chief Ung Seang Rithy – and Philimore have been previously linked to a spate of cases involving the exploitation of maids sent to Malaysia, including allegations of abuse, underage workers and maids gone missing.

Philimore managing director Lao Lyhock yesterday told the Post that he recognised there had been complaints in the past, particularly relating to underage maids, but said management was now “under control”.

“I tell you that some cases have been very unfair to us, and some cases are not the truth. In many cases, some parents and recruiters have changed [ages] on documents. We recognise this happened,” he said.

“Last time, we were also very strict, but we sent tens of thousands of maids, so of course our administration lost some control. But this time, we will not have a problem. If I break the law, I will face the law.”

Lyhock added that although Singapore had much tougher laws, agencies could not guarantee that employers would always respect human rights.

“But if we know of these cases, we need employers to send the maid back home. I will not let the maid work there anymore.”

Ung Seang Rithy could not be reached for comment.

Cambodia placed a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Malaysia in October 2011 after a slew of rights abuses including sexual exploitation, horrendous beatings, human trafficking and forced labour came to light.

Opposition MP Mu Sochua, who personally pressed for the Malaysian moratorium and has spoken out about both companies in the past, said yesterday that their appointment to the pilot program symbolised “a culture of impunity”.

“We cannot look at the problems of the past and resolve them if two agencies that were heavily involved in accidents and injuries [are part of the program], and there are still women in Malaysia whose parents call to ask where their children are,” she said.

Rights groups say that up to 50,000 Cambodian workers, most of whom are working as maids, remain in Malaysia.

In May, a Malaysian couple was sentenced to 24 years in prison for culpable homicide after their Cambodian maid starved to death under their care.

But lured by the higher salary available in Singapore, as well as the perception that the rich and efficient city-state has a much stricter legal system than Malaysia, the workers at Philimore say they have no fears.

“I really want to work in Singapore, because it will help me to earn more money so I can support my family. I really want to save money so I can study sewing and clothes design,” Kroeun Sothy, 28, said.

“I am not worried about abuse at the hands of a Singaporean house owner, because I know that the Singaporean government is very strict on the employers and they will protect us as maids.

“If they do something bad to me, I can sue them.”

Women like Sothy, who already have work experience in Malaysia, make up the majority of workers participating in the scheme and will earn a minimum of $360 per month. More than 30 workers have already arrived in Singapore following months of training.

Chan Sophat, 31, said she would be willing to do all manner of housework in Singapore, including taking care of babies and the elderly, because the pay is simply so good.

“I think I will get more money than in Malaysia. I got only $120 a month in Malaysia in 2001, but I will get nearly $400 a month in Singapore for the same job,” she says as she lays the dining table.

Lyhock said that if the pilot scheme goes well, Cambodia could become a major source for filling Singapore’s domestic worker demand.

“We are very worried about the standards. That is why we are doing the pilot scheme,” he said.

“Out of 400 cases, we can see how many do well, how many get sick, how many get homesick and want to leave. If all 400 are poor quality, Cambodia will not be able to be a source.”

He adds that the economic benefit for Cambodia could be significant, despite the steep $1,930 in placement fees that the women must pay off within the first six months.

“In two years, even with the fees, the maid will earn a minimum of $281 a month. Do you think this is a lot for a local with no education, no professional training?” he says, proudly punching in the numbers into a calculator.

“All of us think this will bring benefits to the Cambodian people. This is very positive.”

Strict laws?

But Bridget Tan, CEO at Singaporean anti-trafficking group Hu­manitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), says that tough Singapore laws to protect workers simply don’t exist.

“I think [Cambodia] should be worried,” she said, citing the lack of a minimum wage and the fact that foreign domestic workers are not covered by Singaporean labour laws.

“Cambodian workers will be used as a commodity in a marketplace. They will be paid according to market forces. Women will become like goods.”

She added that domestic workers can be fired without good reason, with further fees usually charged by agents to find a new employer, potentially trapping women in a cycle of debt.

“The Cambodian worker becomes popular because they are bearing the brunt of the cost and the profit. This is nothing to be happy about. It’s slavery,” she said.

Neither Singapore nor Cambodia has ratified the International Labour Organization convention on domestic workers, which guarantees that certain rights, such as normal hours of work and overtime compensation, are protected.

Although Singapore recently legislated a weekly day off for domestic workers, employers are allowed to negotiate extra payment for those who wish to work on their off-days.

All the women at Philimore said they would never choose to take a day off and give up an extra $15 a week.

Gary Chin, managing director at Nation Employment, Singapore’s largest foreign domestic worker agency, said the Cambodian workers will receive a one-day orientation and safety course on arrival.

He added that they will be allowed to keep their own passports and would have access to support from the agencies, the Cambodian Embassy and Singaporean authorities.

“If they want to go home, that is their free will. But they will have to settle [outstanding debts] with the financer. This is their own private matter,” he said.

Chin added that “if everything goes well”, Cambodian workers could eventually make up 20 per cent of the Singaporean market, which now consists of approximately 200,000 foreign domestic workers.

Acting with caution

Hou Vudthy, undersecretary at the Ministry of Labour, said that the government was proceeding with caution in order to avoid the same kinds of problems that happened in Malaysia.

“We know Singapore has good management for household maids, but we are still concerned because of the past problems.

“It’s complicated, so we need to be careful with this,” he said.

“At first, we are just sending a small number of maids to work in Singapore, just to test the waters.”

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

Moeun Tola, labour head at the Community Legal Education Center, said that a bilateral agreement outlining legal protections should be signed between Cambodia and Singapore.

“The concern for us is that Cambodia will repeat their previous mistake [of] rushing and sending maids without proper discussions or proper agreement with regard to protections,” he said.

“We are really concerned that the same violations could happen as in Malaysia.”