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At least nine Cambodian women died last year while performing domestic work in Malaysia. And the grim reality is that, without strong action by the Cambodian and Malaysian governments to rein in exploitative recruitment and employment practices, more lives will be lost in 2012.

These women did not die solely because of the way they were treated by their Malaysian employers. Their deaths are also linked to government failures: weak regulations, corrupt officials, and short-sighted migration policies.

For two years, I called a village in Kampot province my home. There, I saw at first hand the challenges that pressure Cambodian women and girls to work abroad.

Extreme poverty and few local jobs are among the factors that make these women—most of whom have never even travelled to Phnom Penh—take on the risks of migration.

Living with a Cambodian host family helped me understand the binding filial devotion that would convince a young woman to migrate to support her loved ones—risking her life far from home to send her daughter to school, or to pay for her grandfather’s medical expenses.

Last year, Nhon Yanna, a 16-year-old girl in Pursat province, told my colleagues at Human Rights Watch:

“My mother is sick and can’t work. I wanted to go to Malaysia and earn money to repay my mother’s debt and build a house for my family.”

Although Cambodian women like my host mother are woven tightly into the fabric of their communities, tens of thousands of women and girls like Nhon Yanna have left their villages behind to become domestic workers in Malaysia, at great personal risk.

A Human Rights Watch report, They Deceived Us at Every Step, documents how these women are often betrayed from the very beginning of the recruitment process.

Labour agents enter their villages painting rosy pictures of easy work abroad. These recruiters offer illegal, up-front cash incentives to prospective workers that indebt these women and their families to ensure they do not back out of their contracts.

Recruiters fail to mention the risk of abuse by Malaysian employers, including unpaid wages, no rest days, physical brutality and, sometimes, starvation and rape.

Facing abuse even before they are sent to Malaysia, recruited workers are typically confined in Phnom Penh training centres for months without adequate food and medical care.

A prospective domestic worker, Ngoun Re, told Human Rights Watch: “The food [in the training centre] wasn’t enough . . . many people fell sick. Women were so weak that they couldn’t even walk.”

Some Cambodian government officials are complicit in this abuse by colluding with recruitment agencies. They look the other way as the agencies profit from the exploitation and suffering of Cambodian women.

Such abuse went largely unchecked until last August, when Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed a ban on domestic workers migrating to Malaysia.

But the Cambodian government’s vague and temporary halt on migration looks increasingly like a public-relations stunt – an appearance of concern about the treatment of the country’s women abroad, rather than a concrete step toward a comprehensive framework that would ensure safe, voluntary migration for jobs.

Hun Sen doesn’t have to look far to see how such bans have achieved mixed results for migrants across Southeast Asia.

In 2009, Indonesia imposed a ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia, citing similar concerns about abuse.

Malaysia relied heavily on almost 300,000 Indonesian domestic workers, and the Indonesian ban caused a shortage of household labour.

After the ban was imposed, Malaysian labour agencies simply shifted their focus to recruitment from Cambodia, leaving Indonesia with little bargaining power to demand significantly improved protection.

Around the time Cambodia initiated its ban last year, Indonesia finally agreed to send workers again after signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Malaysia that guaranteed domestic workers a weekly day of rest, the ability to keep their passports and the right to communicate with their families.

Although the MoU brings improvements for Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, they fall far short of the protections for other workers under Malaysian labour law. The very week the MoU was finalised, an Indonesian domestic worker died of alleged abuse in Malaysia.

Cambodia is considering its own MoU with Malaysia. In the meantime, some unscrupulous recruitment agencies in Cambodia continue to flout the migration ban and put lives at risk.

Far more comprehensive protections are needed in Malaysia to prevent, and respond to, the abuse of domestic workers, whether Indonesian or Cambodian.

Instead of falling back on bilateral negotiations, Indonesia, Cambodia, and other countries supplying labour should co-operate regionally to apply strong pressure on Malaysia so it includes all domestic workers in its Employment Act, caps recruitment fees, and monitors the system for abuse.

The Cambodian government should do more than merely imitate Indonesia’s haphazard policies to ensure its citizens can safely and voluntarily migrate for work.

It can begin by improving the regulation and monitoring of its own recruitment agencies and training centres.

Cambodia should also ratify and implement the recently adopted International Labour Organisation Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

This ground-breaking treaty extends key human-rights and labour protections to domestic workers around the globe.

Hun Sen’s government needs to stand up for the rights of the Kingdom’s migrant workers, learn from the short-sightedness of neighbouring countries, and pursue comprehensive reforms that will provide long-overdue protection for the women and girls of Cambodia.

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