PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)–Cambodian recruitment agencies for domestic migrant workers backtracked on a decision announced in May and said at the end of June they would no longer send domestic workers to Kuwait, following complaints of lack of legal and human rights protection for migrant workers.

But that policy doesn’t extend east to Malaysia, which drew more than 16,000 Cambodian domestic workers – almost all of them female – in 2010.

Many workers come home complaining about pay that is withheld for at least four to seven months; work shifts that are unspecified and long; food shortages; and physical and verbal abuse, according to local human rights and labor rights organizations in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital.

Cambodian workers first experience a taste of life in Malaysia in the Phnom Penh pre-departure recruitment training centers, where they wait for an average three months for their visas to clear.

"Once you are inside the center, you cannot leave, even if you are sick," said Moeun Tola, chief of the labor program unit at the Community Legal Education Center, based in Phnom Penh. "If you want to leave, you have to pay the agency a lot of money; $600 to $1,500 to cover costs for your training, food and housing. No one staying there has this kind of money."

Recruited women are often divorced or widowed, placing them in low social and economic standing in their communities that leaves them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Deaths and Escape Attempts

Two women have died in training centers since 2010, while more than 10 women have escaped. In early 2011, a woman broke both her legs after she jumped from a center’s third-story window. These high-profile cases were reported in both national and international media.

Prak Srey Mom, 29, said in an interview with Women’s eNews that she escaped from a Top Manpower Co., Ltd, center on May 19, 2011, two weeks before her scheduled departure for Malaysia. She had spent the past two months in one room she shared with 20 other trainees. She was hungry most of the time, she said, but remained lured by the promise of earning up to $250 monthly in Malaysia during the typical two-year work period. Then she spoke with a returned worker who visited the center.

"The girl who came back from Malaysia said that she still had no money, that she was treated badly and I should be careful," said Prak, who goes by her last name followed by her first name like most Cambodians, through a Khmer translator.

Days after the conversation, Prak snuck past the center’s guards and climbed down from the building’s roof. She successfully fled, but remains concerned for her sister, who was in the same center and was denied permission to go home and care for her sick children.

Representatives for Top Manpower and the Association of Cambodia Recruitment Agency, both based in Phnom Penh, did not respond to requests for comment on their treatment of recruited workers.

The Cambodian Ministry of Labor has closed down a few pre-departure training centers, but not any companies themselves, said Ya Navuth, executive director of Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility, or CARAM, a nongovernmental organization that does outreach work with prospective migrant workers.

Expanding Opportunities

Opportunities for Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia have expanded rapidly since 2008, when Indonesia stopped sending migrant workers there because of human rights abuse allegations. Only 2,654 Cambodian domestic workers went to Malaysia that year, according to the U.S. State Department.

There are now more than 40 recruitment agencies in Cambodia, which all follow a basic formula.

"They target the poorest among the poor," said Moeun of the Community Legal Education Center. "They say you can earn $180 a month, and if you pass a basic test your family automatically gets $50 and a 50 kg [bag] of rice. So, for a very poor family living in a small village, when they hear all of this, it is no problem for their daughter to have to spend a few months in the center."

CARAM conducts regular public forums on migration in targeted villages and in training centers. The frank sessions rarely persuade prospective workers to consider another option.

"We tell them that it will be very difficult, but they still choose to go," said Ya. "If they stay here, they can’t find a job."

So Tay, 53, has worked in Malaysia in three capacities since 1999, and has spent time in recruitment centers both in Cambodia and holding centers for workers in Malaysia.

Three Trips

On her first trip, So became sick and was sent back to Cambodia after four months without any pay. On her second trip, in 2001, she was forced to work more than 18 hours a day and was physically abused.

During her last work trip in 2005, she tried to quit and was placed in a detention center run by a Malaysian-counterpart agency. She remained there for three months, before being flown back to Cambodia without any money.

So now lives in Phnom Penh and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic intestinal problems that prevent her from holding a steady job.

Bruno Maltoni, project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration’s office in Phnom Penh, which does not work directly with domestic migrant workers, says he does not think all migrant domestic workers have negative experiences.

"There’s a lot of hammering in the media about this and a lot of emotions, which is quite right, but I don’t think it is as widespread and as common as it is made out to be," he said.

He said that by 2020 he expects to see at least a 4-percent increase in the migrant work force in Cambodia. Thailand is another major destination for migrant domestic Cambodian workers.

Would you like to Comment but not sure how? Visit our help page at

Would you like to Send Along a Link of This Story?

Amy Lieberman, currently reporting from Southeast Asia, is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Community Legal Education Center:

Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. State Department: