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(New York) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s proposed ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia should be accompanied by a major overhaul in protections for these workers, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 14, 2011, Hun Sen promised an opposition lawmaker, Mu Sochua, to halt migration in the wake of repeated complaints of abuse during recruitment in Cambodia and employment in Malaysia.

Underage recruitment, forced confinement in training centers, and deception about recruitment debts and working conditions plague the recruitment of tens of thousands of Cambodians migrating to Malaysia as domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is finally demonstrating concern about the plight of Cambodian migrant domestic workers, but a ban is only a temporary measure,” said Jyotsna Poudyal, women’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “The government should introduce major reforms, in consultation with civil society, to improve regulation and monitoring of labor recruitment in Cambodia so that women can migrate voluntarily and safely.”

An official announcement confirming the ban has yet to be made, but labor recruitment agencies have reported that they received an order to halt recruitment from the Labor and Vocational Training Ministry.

Malaysia excludes domestic workers from key provisions in its Employment Act, including limits on working hours and a requirement for a weekly day off. High-profile abuse cases and disagreements about minimum protections led Indonesia to suspend sending domestic workers there in June 2009, which spurred a significant increase in the recruitment of Cambodian workers.

Indonesia and Malaysia recently revised a memorandum of understanding that guarantees Indonesian domestic workers a weekly day of rest and the right to keep their passports, instead of allowing employers to hold them, restricting the ability of a worker to leave. No such protections have been extended to Cambodian workers.

“Malaysia should not respond to Cambodia’s ban by turning to countries with even weaker protections for recruiting domestic workers, but should revise its labor code to strengthen its own protections,” Poudyal said. “It should also improve access to complaint mechanisms and the justice system’s response to allegations of abuse.”

Cambodia and Malaysia should introduce protections in line with the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) newly adopted Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, Human Rights Watch said. The convention’s article on recruitment agencies sets out requirements for accessible complaint mechanisms and for substantial penalties for agencies that violate standards and prohibit salary deductions for recruitment fees.

The treaty also calls for domestic workers to be guaranteed the same rights as other workers with respect to working hours, rest periods and annual leave. Cambodia and Malaysia have yet to ratify the treaty, which was adopted in June.

“Cambodia can push more effectively to protect its citizens abroad if it gets serious about dealing with human rights abuses against prospective migrants at home,” Poudyal said. “And it should coordinate with other labor-sending countries to promote regional cooperation for minimum standards, to avoid a race to the bottom.”

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