2011 Aug 18
August 18, 2011

Cambodian maids speak of abuse

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Hok Pov had never been beaten and never known hunger until she came to work in Malaysia in April.

In the six weeks that she worked as a maid for a Malaysian family, she says she lost 22 pounds (10 kilograms) while toiling 20 hours a day with little to eat. Often she was slapped and punched by her employer, she says.

“I was so hungry that I even ate chicken bones,” a sobbing Hok Pov, 31, told The Associated Press at the office of Malaysian rights’ group Tenaganita that rescued her in June with the help of police.

“There was always lot of work to do and I had to suffer beatings. Once I was slapped so hard that my tooth fell off. Who can bear this?” Hok Pov said in her first media interview.

She is among 41 Cambodian maids rescued this year by the group, highlighting the frequent abuse and exploitation of foreign domestic workers due to inadequate laws in this wealthy Southeast Asian nation.

Concerns of abuse of Cambodian maids came under the public spotlight after a Cambodian maid was found dead last month outside the home where she worked, while another was rescued by Malaysian police after she was allegedly abused and had her head shaved bald by her employer

According to the embassies of Indonesia and Cambodia — which have supplied the bulk of more than 230,000 foreign maids in Malaysia — about 2,000 women come forward every year with complaints of abuse. Although that’s a tiny fraction of the total number, rights groups say every instance of abuse shows Malaysia in poor light and emphasizes the government’s uncaring attitude to the problem.

Malaysia’s rising prosperity has meant that fewer locals want to do menial, low-paying jobs. The gap has been filled by foreigners, mostly Indonesians who can be seen on construction sites, palm plantations and in homes as maids.

But a string of high-profile abuse cases, including deaths, led Indonesia to ban its women in 2009 from working in Malaysia. The number of foreign maids fell from 280,000 three years ago to about 230,000 today. Some 50,000 of them are Cambodians, of which 30,000 came this year alone.

The government says it condemns abuse of maid but has not done anything to review the laws to protect them. Malaysian immigration officials in charge of foreign domestic workers couldn’t be reached for comment on the issue, despite repeated attempts to contact them.

Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez said Wednesday that maids who come from poor countries are all vulnerable to abuse, except for Filipinos who are better protected by their government. She said abuse is institutionalized here as maids aren’t allowed to retain their passports and get no days off in a week.

“Instead of addressing the root problem of putting an end to abuse, the government is turning to other poor countries vulnerable to abuse to source for maids,” she said.

Tenaganita is urging Cambodia also to stop sending maids to Malaysia until the government puts in place tougher laws, or at least an agreement that protects the maids from abusive employers. Indonesia has negotiated such an agreement and is expected to lift the ban on its maids soon.

Hok Pov, who said her hair was cut short like a boy’s, was promised a monthly salary of 650 ringgit ($218) — double her wage as a factory worker in Cambodia. She has not received any money from her employer.

“I just want my salary and get out of here. I don’t ever want to come to Malaysia again,” said Hok Pov, who is married and has an eight-year-old son.

“They are rich, educated and religious people but why don’t they have any compassion for the poor like me? I have no one to turn to. Every night I cried myself to sleep. It was one and a half months in hell,” she said.

Tenaganita official Liva Sreedhana said it was difficult to file criminal charges against Hok Pov’s employer as she has no physical injury or scars to show, and only has her words. The group is now negotiating with the employer, who is refusing to give Hok Pov any money and is dodging meetings.

Men Chaveasna, who also lives in Tenaganita’s shelter with Hok Pov, completed her two-year work contract last August but never got her wages. Her Malaysian employer bought her a flight home and ditched her at the airport.

Chaveasna, 30, who came to Malaysia to work to support her farmer parents, won a case in the labor court this year to demand wages totaling 7,700 ringgit ($2,580) owed to her. But her employer appealed to the high court and the case is pending.

“It is better not to work in Malaysia because we may not get paid,” she said. “There are many new factories in Cambodia and I can find jobs back home.”

Cambodian Ambassador Norodom Arunrasmy told the AP on Wednesday that Malaysia is the only country that recruits Cambodian maids, giving the poor a lifeline.

She said the Cambodian government was in the process of drafting a new law to protect its maids, including screening the employer to ensure the girls would be properly housed and not overworked.

“To ban or not to ban would be up to the high decision of my government … but they (the government) also know that our people need work and jobs in order to survive,” Arunrasmy said in an email. –Eileen Ng, Associated Press