Maid in Cambodia training class
Chu Mom Ry (right) speaks to a training class for domestic workers in Phnom Penh.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)– As an expat living in Cambodia, Marisa Tan saw that many foreigners depend on domestic workers to clean their homes and take care of household chores.

She also saw that the working conditions for the local Cambodian women filling the positions could be abysmal: working as many as 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for anywhere from $50 to $100 per month.

So Tan has opened a training and placement center for domestic workers that seeks to transform how maids are hired and treated by the foreign community here in Cambodia’s capital city. Pay packages start at $75 per month for someone cleaning four hours, once a week, in an apartment setting. The wages increase based on the number of hours and days worked and the size of the house. Daily cleaning of a villa, for example, pays $225 per month, split between a full-time and a part-time worker.

By comparison, full-time workers in Cambodia‘s clothing industry recently received a wage increase to $128 per month, just a little more than the poverty wage, which is about $120.

Like many of the city’s garment workers, domestic workers often come to Phnom Penh from impoverished rural villages. Few understand the conditions they will likely work under or what is expected of them by their employer.

Estimating their numbers is difficult since they are not considered formal workers by the government or the employers, said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, the international rights and research group headquartered in New York. "Since domestic workers work informally and are not covered by the labor law of the country, they are dependent on the good will of their employer and labor rights protections contained in the law are beyond their reach," he said in a recent email interview.

Robertson said he could not comment specifically on Maid in Cambodia, but supported adequate training for domestic workers, along with paid time off, decent wages and reasonable work hours.

"Responsible employers who respect their workers and provide quality employment are an important part of raising standards for all domestic workers in the country," Robertson said. "We hope that socially responsible companies will be able to grow and expand in Cambodia."

Rallies and Workshops

A movement to improve working conditions and wages and attain government regulation is underway here, led by the Cambodian Domestic Worker Network, a group of more than 400 who stage rallies and workshops around Phnom Penh. So far, though, they have not caused any governmental action.

Maid in Cambodia, meanwhile, is one way that women can receive better working conditions now. Its focus is on domestic work settings but it also offers deep-cleaning services for businesses and other entities.

The program’s numbers have started off small. Since it was founded in May 2014 it has trained more than 20 women. Fourteen have been placed into private residents, nine of whom are still in those jobs, said Tan.

Those numbers could be much larger since Tan said she cannot meet the demand by expat employers. One of the biggest obstacles, she said, is finding enough local women who are willing to undergo the training. To help recruit, she’s begun working with a nonprofit education center in Cambodia that trains young people.

Many think foreigners are more generous with wages and working conditions, but that’s not always the case, Tan said. She described some expats as spoiled, detached and lacking boundaries after spending so much time overseas. In that group she included those working for government or nongovernmental agencies here that employ the vast majority of expats.

"My people are not your personal slaves," Tan said of the women, who have ranged in age from 21 to about 45. "They work eight hours, that’s it. If they work more, you are going to pay them overtime."

No One Going Overseas

Tan also refuses to send any of the women abroad, despite regular requests from the Middle East and other Asian countries for Cambodian maids. In the past few years, news of abuses against Cambodian migrant workers has tainted that idea. Workers often pay heavy fees to a recruitment agency and get trapped in jobs where they can work as many as 20 hours a day and be vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.

"The woman have to stay here," Tan said. "It doesn’t do anybody any good to send domestic workers abroad, especially in Cambodia."

Maid in Cambodia has gained notice within Cambodia. Representatives from the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the German and U.S. embassies attended its opening to show their support.

In Tan’s center, Cambodian women sign up for a three-month course to learn such things as germ theory and cross contamination in both a classroom setting and a practical setting. They also learn about Western culture and customs and how to report instances of abuse. The course is free and comes with room and board. Training is also offered for domestic workers who are already working but want to learn or refresh their skills. Once the course is completed, the women are ready to be hired by expats who pay a placement fee of 25 percent of the package price.

"It’s more than just teaching them how to clean. It’s about work ethic," said Tan, who is 36 and grew up in Germany.

Chu Mom Ry, who is about 50, works closely with local Cambodian women as Maid in Cambodia‘s training director. Mom Ry was once Tan’s maid but now works with her directly on the enterprise. She said having a strong work ethic and paying attention to detail is important for the women to excel as domestic workers.

One woman who completed the course and worked for a French family has made enough money to send her child to a better school, Tan said.

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