Many Cambodians trafficked to Malaysia: An Interview with Chab Dai's Aimee Brammer

Monday, July 25, 2011
Last month, the United States Department of State released the annual Trafficking in Persons Report highlighting efforts and progress in fight human trafficking around the world. The section on Cambodia emphasizes that one challenge the Cambodian government increasingly faces is the rise in the number of Cambodians migrating to Malaysia. While the opportunity to migrate presents economic opportunity for many, it seems that for some, the actual experience has not worked out so well.

Aimee Brammer of Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia has been researching and working on this issue for much of the last year and what follows is a brief interview with her conducted through an email exchange.

1. Why are increasing numbers of Cambodians migrating to Malaysia?

After Indonesia put a ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia in 2009, the rise in Cambodians migrating was drastic. Last year, over 20,000 Cambodian women were sent to Malaysia through legal recruitment companies licensed in Cambodia. However, the Indonesian ban left a huge gap of reportedly 35,000 Malaysian families waiting to hire domestic workers. In response to the high demand, young Cambodian women and even girls are vulnerable to being recruited to fill their demand. 

Due to numerous reports of horrible abuses happening within Malaysian homes, as well as significant wages being withheld, the Indonesian government placed a ban on sending their domestic workers. After two years, Indonesia and Malaysia signed a new MOU last month which outlines workers' rights (in theory), including a day off each week and keeping possession of their passport. Access to appropriate complaint mechanisms was on the agenda, but it was unfortunately not clearly addressed. It has yet to be seen clearly how Indonesia's new MOU will affect Cambodia, however, women and girls are still actively being recruited.

2. What are the conditions these migrants face when reaching Malaysia?

This varies from company to company, and within household to household, but at the last forum meeting with Malaysian & Cambodian organizations held in Phnom Penh earlier this month, Malaysian partners said they have seen a recent increase in the number of cases involving sexual abuse (nearly 50%). Before there were trends of physical abuse and withholding wages, but now the conditions reported are getting worse.

Agents in Malaysia encourage employers to keep the passports, for fear of the domestic worker running away. She may also stay in the house the majority of her day, sometimes even locked in, and may only go out with her employer to the market. The system is aligned in a way to protect the employer more than the domestic worker- she is at the mercy of her employer for food, medical help, to renew her work permit, and even for using a phone to call home. Some girls report only calling their parents one time in two years, and others reported the agency in Malaysia searching their personal belongings and confiscating photos and phone numbers.

One report indicates that if the girl attempts to run away from the house, she can face trouble from the agency or employer if they come looking for her. The employer can cancel her work permit (and she will immediately become an undocumented worker), and/or the police or RELA Corps can arrest her for not having her passport and put her in a detention center. Here, she is not treated as a victim, but as a criminal. Even if they attempted to identify her as a trafficking victim, her inability to speak Bahasa Malaysia or English and lack of education on her rights, prevents her from advocating for herself properly.

3. Who are those migrating?

The majority of women are being recruited from very poor families in provincial villages (many rice farmers), who also have a low education background. Many of the women I have met in airports and in Malaysia, told me they had only finished level two or three of primary school, and some said they had never been to school. They are recruited from all over Cambodia, and then taken to Phnom Penh to train in centers for three months or so. On a flight to Malaysia earlier this year, nearly half of the girls and women I met going to Malaysia to work in houses were Cambodian Muslims ("Cham"), and this is a demographic that Chab Dai believes is highly vulnerable because of a shared faith & language with families in Malaysia. Currently we do not have any research on trafficking patterns in Cham communities, which make up about 3% of the Cambodian population, but we are planning to do a preliminary research by the end of this year. 

4. How are these people learning of the opportunities that await them in Malaysia?

In Cambodia, the Ministry of Labour has signed an MOU with over 30 companies who are able to legally recruit women throughout the provinces and have provincial offices. Many villagers are approached by local brokers who themselves can make up to $100USD/ for every woman they recruit. I heard once that the process of recruiting can be as quick as 30 minutes! The immediate benefits of signing a work contract are high for families, they can receive around $100USD cash up front, in addition to a bag of rice or a new mobile phone (which is all added up and deducted from their first 6-7 months of pay, including travel & training expenses).

Cambodians who listen to the radio can also hear daily advertisements stating that women can “earn $180USD every month doing easy and safe work in Malaysia.” From informal inquiring with immigration officers, airline staff, and airport guards, they could all quote the commercials and said they saw up to 50 women leave to Malaysia everyday.

5. Why should those interested in the anti-trafficking movement in Cambodia be aware of this issue?

This is a classic definition example of "force, fraud and coercion"- the essence of human trafficking and slavery. If you are an advocate for ending human trafficking you know that it's not only about sex, or that it only happens to children. Men, women, boys, and girls are victims the world over; human trafficking comes in all forms. Moreover, in the case of Cambodian women and girls being recruited to work in strong patriarchal families in Malaysia we see it all - physical abuse, cursing, beating, withholding wages, being locked in training centers & houses, and even sexual abuse.

6. What can be done to alleviate the problems facing Cambodians migrating to Malaysia?

There are people already working hard to alleviate these problems! Stakeholders from over 25 national and international organizations who focus on legal, prevention, and policy, meet monthly to coordinate efforts on this issue of labour trafficking & exploitation, and advocate with the Cambodian government to make migration and recruitment safer. We are also advocating for these countries to ratify the UN Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In May, we met with organizations helping victims of trafficking in Malaysia, and heard about the challenges they face as well as the services available there. I have hope that together we can now protect and advocate with a stronger voice in both countries! And I have hope in already seeing the first fruits of the meeting- we now have a channel for safe repatriations and referrals across borders.

Jeremy Floyd
Project Manager – SE Asia Directive

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