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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Job agencies complicit in Malaysian abuse of Cambodian maids

Beaten and robbed … Orn Eak has returned to her village home and her five-year-old son but is still scarred by her mistreatment in Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh. Photo: Lindsay Murdoch



Beaten, starved and treated as a slave in a Kuala Lumpur apartment, Cambodian maid Orn Eak says a one-metre snake ended her almost two-year nightmare in Malaysia.

''When the snake crawled into my employer's apartment she blamed me and kicked me out,'' says Orn Eak, 28, one of thousands of Cambodian domestic workers who have been exploited and abused in Malaysia, some of them girls as young as 13. ''I got the blame for everything, including the death of my employer's elderly mother.''

Orn Eak's body is covered in scars from beatings by a Kuala Lumpur woman aged in her 30s who employed her through a Cambodian employment agency in early 2010.

Orn Eak, who is single, with a five-year-old son, says she joined 30,000 other young Cambodian women and girls working as maids in Malaysia because her mother was struggling to survive in their village in Cambodia's Kompong Thom province, where she lives in a bamboo hut with a dirt floor and leaking roof.

In Kuala Lumpur, Orn Eak had no days off and worked from dawn into the early hours of the next morning caring for her employer's disabled mother, who was in her 70s.

Orn Eak claims the old woman once kicked her in the head after she had delayed changing her clothes while she briefly went to the toilet. Orn Eak says her employer did not speak a word to her for months.

She says she was frequently beaten and scratched and was often hungry, surviving with food she bought with money two members of her employer's family gave her for Chinese New Year.

Nine Cambodian domestic workers died in Malaysia in 2011, according to human rights and non-government organisations.

Choy Pich, 19, was reportedly beaten by her employer and dumped outside his house. She died of pneumonia.

A Malaysian opposition MP, Charles Santiago, has accused the government in Kuala Lumpur and police of ''totally disrespecting'' Malaysian laws by conducting, at best, only cursory investigations into the deaths.

Human Rights Watch, which has interviewed 80 Cambodian maids, their families and government officials, says common abuses include excessive work hours with no rest days, lack of food and irregular or non-payment of salaries, which are as low as $US133 a month.

Usually the maids' passports are taken away from them.

Many have reported sexual abuse, restrictions of movements and bans on contact with other maids.

Last October, after reports in the Cambodian media about the mistreatment of women and girls as young as 13 in Malaysia, the Cambodian government announced a ban on sending maids to the country.

But unscrupulous recruitment agencies have ignored the ban, human rights and non-government organisations say.

Orn Eak's mistreatment worsened after her employer's mother died in hospital.

''My employer said I was not doing a good job and as punishment she only allowed me to eat one packet of dried noodles a day for six weeks,'' she says. ''I felt homesick … I missed my son and mother very much but I knew I had to keep working for them.''

But Ee Tha, 55, says she received only two payments over almost two years from her daughter's Malaysian employer totalling $US270.

The employer deducted Orn Eak's flight home from her salary, which was supposed to be $US180 a month.

When Orn Eak arrived back in Phnom Penh in November, a woman picked her up at the airport and took her to the employment agency's compound.

''I told the story about the snake to a director of the company … she told me to sit in a chair,'' Orn Eak says. ''Five men came into the room and beat me … they pushed my head into a glass door and kicked me on the ground.''

Ee Tha received a message to come to Phnom Penh to take her daughter home.

''When I saw that my daughter's face and body were cut and bruised my heart dropped to the floor,'' Ee Tha says.

''I said to her, 'I'm your mother', but she did not recognise me … I burst into tears,'' Ee Tha says.

After Ee Tha refused to leave the employment agency's office with her daughter until she was given the money she was owed, an agency director finally handed over $US1200 - meaning Orn Eak earned only $1470 for almost two years' work, half what she had been promised.

Orn Eak has suffered depression and other undiagnosed illnesses since she returned to live in the village.

Social workers have verified her claims of abuse through medical and other checks.

''I have gone to the temple every day and prayed and prayed that my daughter would be OK after all this but she still has not recovered,'' Ee Tha says.

The government in Phnom Penh has been strongly pushing migrant work abroad as a strategy to increase foreign remittances, cope with unemployment and alleviate poverty.

But Human Rights Watch says the government has abdicated responsibilities for safeguarding migrants to private employment agencies, some of which are reportedly owned by, or affiliated with, government officials.

The demand for Cambodian maids in Malaysia has sharply increased since 2009 when the Indonesian government responded to several high-profile abuse cases by imposing a moratorium on its citizens working as maids there.

The ban was lifted on December 1 after an agreement under which Indonesian maids would do 200 hours of training before coming to Malaysia.

Indonesians will also be able to keep their passports and will be given a weekly day off.

But there are no safeguards for the abuse or exploitation of Cambodian maids.

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