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Thursday, March 17, 2011

CAMBODIA: Trafficking domestic workers to Malaysia

PHNOM PENH, (IRIN) - Investigations by NGOs in Cambodia have found that companies are recruiting girls as young as 13 to work in Malaysian households, confining them in overcrowded and unhygienic “training centres”, forging birth certificates to raise their age, and paying finders’ fees to brokers.

Hou Vuthy, a deputy director-general at the Ministry of Labour, said the government is moving swiftly to address the abuses and that “vast improvements” have been made.

He estimated it would take about three more years to fully control the recruiting companies, some of whom employed unscrupulous agents who “cheated” illiterate village residents. He stressed, however, that the government had already managed to eliminate the illegal recruiters.

Attention has focused on the burgeoning industry, and the firm T&P Co. Ltd. in particular, since one woman died at its “training” facility in suburban Phnom Penh and another broke bones in both of her legs while trying to escape from its third floor balcony.

She got entangled in the razor wire around the second floor, and then fell to the pavement, neighbours said. The three people who carried her off the street and comforted her while awaiting an ambulance were later summonsed to the local police station and interrogated by officers who accused them of colluding with the “trainees” to help them escape, neighbours said.

Tola Moeun, head of the Labour Programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection were more concerned with protecting the recruitment agencies than the welfare of the more than 20,000 Cambodians who had been recruited to work as maids in Malaysia.

He said that in most cases he had investigated, the maids were under 21, and many were under 18. He alleged that officials at the commune level were falsifying birth certificates so that passports with false dates of birth could be issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Labour Ministry’s Vuthy admitted this had been happening, saying his office had no control over local officials and that it could not verify the authenticity of birth certificates that were delivered by the recruiting companies. He said, however, that the Ministry of Interior had cracked down on village and commune officials who forged documents. “That does not happen any more,” he said.

Government complicity?

MP and former minister for women’s affairs Mu Chua has accused the government of complicity in trafficking.

“The Cambodian government has effectively legalized human trafficking,” Mu Suchua said. She also said the government was protecting the recruiting companies because some of its members might have financial interests in them.

Local media have reported more than 90 recruiting companies registered with the government, but Vuthy said there were 33, though they operate about 100 “training centres” in and around Phnom Penh. When asked if any companies were connected to the government, he replied: “It is legal in Cambodia for wives of politicians to run businesses,” but added, ownership is irrelevant because all companies must abide by the law.

Mu Chua said some of companies brazenly violate the law. “The girls are being bought, documents are being forged; they are being imprisoned and abused in Cambodia, and then they are sent into an environment where there are no safeguards to protect them. Often their passports are confiscated and they are confined in households.”

The Cambodia Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc) had warned in September 2010 that its investigation found severe cases of abuse at “training centres” in Phnom Penh and in Malaysia. Passports were being confiscated, maids were forcibly detained, and some were beaten, raped and tortured, Adhoc said.

Lobbying for legal age reduction

“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” said deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Phil Roberston. “There is also an overland route for smuggling Cambodian girls into Malaysia through Thailand.”

He also warned that efforts to lobby the Malaysian government to lower the legal age of maids from 21 to 18 were a “recipe for disaster”. “Our research has found that the younger the maid the more vulnerable they are to abuse and exploitation,” he said.

Vuthy said reports in Malaysian media that the Cambodian government was lobbying for a reduction in the age were fabricated by recruiting companies attempting to pressure Kuala Lumpur. Neither the Cambodian government nor the Malaysian government would give into their pressure, he said.

Recruitment companies in Malaysia set their sights on Cambodia in 2009 after Indonesia [ ] announced a freeze on sending new domestic workers to Malaysia, following reports of extreme abuse there.

Cambodian maids are more vulnerable because of the language barrier, greater cultural differences, the extreme poverty many came from, and the distance between the two countries, Robertson said.

Roberston said efforts by the international community to train Cambodian officials about trafficking had had little success. “Some top level officials go to seminar after seminar, while lower level officials receive little or no information on what trafficking is and how to prevent it. There is also a bigger problem of corruption among government officials, which is what we are seeing in relation to these labour recruitment schemes seeking to send maids to Malaysia.”

Vuthy sees things differently. He said his ministry was struggling with a surge in demand and a lack of experience and resources to monitor the industry. It was only last year that it produced its first orientation manual for migrant workers, he said.

“We’re learning quickly,” he said.

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US, Cambodia discuss 'dirty debt' repayment

PHNOM PENH — Cambodian and US officials held talks on Thursday to explore ways of settling a decades-old "dirty debt" of more than $400 million, both sides said.

The low-interest loans from the US were given to the government of General Lon Nol after it came to power in a US-backed coup in 1970.

Cambodia says the money helped pay for a devastating bombing campaign on the country by US forces targeting Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the early 1970s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last year called for the "dirty debt" to be cancelled, but the government softened its stance after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in November that Washington was willing to discuss alternative ways for Cambodia to repay the sum.

A Phnom Penh meeting between US Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was the first step in that direction, the US embassy said in a statement.

During the talks, Hor Namhong asked the US to lower the interest rate on the loans from three percent to one, foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.

Phnom Penh also requested that 70 percent of the debt be converted into development assistance for Cambodia, he said, without giving further details.

The remainder of the amount would be paid to Washington, he added.

"Our real wish is that... we want it to be cancelled. (But) we have to find common ground that we all can agree on. We cannot resolve it if we stick to a point that they do not agree with," Koy Kuong said.

Yun did not talk to reporters after the meeting but the US embassy said the US hopes "an agreement can be reached soon".

"Such an agreement would enhance Cambodia's creditworthiness and ability to access international capital markets," the statement said.

By the end of 2009, Cambodia's debt to the US totalled approximately $445 million, it added.

Washington was the main financial and military supporter of Lon Nol's regime until it was toppled by the Khmer Rouge movement in April 1975.

Officially, the loans were to develop the country's agriculture sector and boost commodities exports.

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Cambodia Seeks Large Reduction to US Debts

Cambodia has asked the US to decrease its Lon Nol-era debt and to decrease the interest rate on the balance, officials said Thursday.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong met with US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun, who is in charge of Asia Pacific, on Thursday, over some $445 million in debt accrued during the Lon Nol era.

Hor Namhong requested that debt be lowered by 70 percent, to about $133 million, and that interest be lowered from 3 percent to 1 percent, officials said after the meeting.

The war-era debt has been a sticking point in bilateral relations between the countries. Cambodian officials have said they should not have to repay the debt, which was accumulated by a pre-Khmer Rouge era government. Prime Miniser Hun Sen calls the war-era debt “dirty.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Cambodia has changed its position on the debt in order to reach an agreement.

The US has said countries typically must repay such debts, despite changes of leaders or regime. However, in a visit in November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said officials would revisit the debt question.

Following Thursday’s discussion, Yun said he would take the new debt request back to Washington, according to Cambodian officials present. Yun was not available to reporters following the meeting.

US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said in a statement a debt agreement “would enhance Cambodia’s credit worthiness and ability to access international capital markets.”
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