Last July, authorities in Phnom Penh raided a recruitment firm, where they found more than 200 people, including underage girls, crammed into rooms in the training complex. Within a week, another agency made local headlines after a woman leapt over the walls to escape, claiming she had been held against her will because she couldn’t pay off her debt.
An Bunhak, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, says the existing Cambodian law governing the industry, which is more than 15 years-old, has grown inadequate for the current situation. The government is expected to pass stricter regulations this year, including minimum standards at the facilities and restrictions on loans.
But while he acknowledges there have been some bad actors in the industry, he says he believes they are still a minority.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘Not all the companies act like this,’ he says. ‘We have a code of conduct for our members.’
And in a country where an estimated 250,000 young people are expected to enter the workforce every year, Cambodia must consider domestic work as a valuable option for many of its citizens, he adds. ‘We want to strengthen the industry to protect our migrant workers.’
Malaysian officials, meanwhile, dispute these negative characterizations of the industry. Raja Saifful, the deputy chief of mission for the Embassy of Malaysia in Phnom Penh, acknowledges there may be isolated cases where maids have been abused. But those examples shouldn’t taint the industry as a whole. Malaysia remains a safe place for the majority of foreign domestic workers, he says.
‘I can say the government of Malaysia is very serious in handling the situation. All those people responsible for abuse have been prosecuted and convicted based on existing laws,’ he says. ‘If there are real cases of abuse, the authorities in Malaysia would really look into the matter and would handle it very seriously.’
But for Limheang, things were to get worse before they improved. She says the beatings grew more violent as the weeks wore on. At one point, she claims, she was hospitalized after an attack. Then, with no explanation, her employers drove her to the airport, handed back her passport and gave her a plane ticket home.
It had been eight months, and she didn’t receive a dollar for her work. But the devout Buddhist says she still gave thanks. As far as she is concerned, her prayers were answered.
Today, Limheang is back at her old garment factory, where she works as a cleaner for less money then she earned before she left. But she’s still upbeat.
‘I feel like I’ve been born again,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to go back.’
Irwin Loy is a Phnom Penh-based writer. His articles have also appeared in publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian and CNN Traveller, among others.