Cambodia’s ability to cry poor and use this as an excuse to justify bad behavior has for years been a major source of irritation among this country’s monarchy, offshore donors and anyone who thinks a sense of propriety and fair play should be incorporated into generous foreign aid packages.
Donor fatigue among foreign governments is only exacerbated by the enormous wealth accumulated by the political elite and well-connected—and the sometimes appalling behavior of their precocious, over-indulged offspring, dubbed by headline writers as the 'Khmer Riche.'
The spoilt brats of the capital are a far cry from the kids in the countryside who are increasingly being pushed in unprecedented directions as Phnom Penh winds crying poor into its foreign policy.
This is being felt in Malaysia. A few weeks back, in Kuala Lumpur, I had a chance meeting with a young girl from Sihanoukville. We were in the waiting room at Tenaganita—a human rights organization that focuses on women and migrants, something that often translates into human trafficking and people smuggling.
Lina, who says she is 21-years-old, anglicized her name and traded her home on Cambodia’s southern coast for a job in Malaysia where she worked under contract in a hair salon. She was supposed to be paid 1,000 ringgit ($325) a month, but rarely was. Instead she was forced to take out loans from her employer to cover costs that included accommodation, food and the products for work like shampoo and conditioner she was also told she had to purchase.
After 9 months, she was told she owed 2000 to 3000 ringgit and would have to work it off. The math doesn’t make much sense, but that didn’t seem to bother her employer.
Any regular employee heading into such a position would simply walk out, but Lina is on a two-year deal offered by touts who scour the region looking for cheap labour. So she fled, and on the advice of friends found help at Tenaganita, who have freely housed and fed her.
Meanwhile, the former employers have called the authorities and she isn’t allowed to leave the country until her debts have been repaid, an obviously infuriating position, which Tenaganita is negotiating.
That said, relatively speaking Lina wasn’t badly treated. Aegile Fernandez, who helps run Tenaganita, has a litany of horror stories including girls being stripped naked, strung upside down and their toes plugged into a light socket for perceived slights and misdemeanours.
In one case, a human trafficker spent a year studying psychiatry at a local university so he could better control and manipulate the girls who came under his charge.
Many countries simply ban their women from working abroad in menial jobs. Others, like The Philippines, have well-established and enforced laws that afford some protection and guarantees for its citizens when working abroad.
In Malaysia, the minimum age for a woman to enter the country to work is 21. Fernandez says this is because such a life-changing decision—to leave one’s family and emigrate—requires a mature mind and anything less is simply too young. But she says Cambodian girls often lie about their age and carry fake Cambodian ID cards that they’ve used to obtain passports: ‘Children as young as 14, 15, 16 have passports saying they are 21, 22 and 23.’
The Cambodian response, however, has been anything but sympathetic. They want the Malaysian Government to lower their age limits and allow more Cambodians access to ‘employment opportunities.’
‘I’m very upset with the Cambodian Government, they have written a letter to the Malaysian government asking them to lower the age requirements,’ Fernandez says. ‘They say things like “we are a poor country” and this “will allow poor people a chance to work.” It’s nonsense, they are still children.’