CAMBOGIA: New Sub-Decree on Migrant Labor Fails Dismally on Workers Rights

Released by Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)

August 31, 2011 – Cambodia’s recently-enacted sub-decree on migrant labor is a “dismal failure” for workers and should be scrapped in favor of a new law, according to an analysis by LICAHDO.

The Sub-Decree on “the Management of the Sending of Cambodian Workers Abroad through Private Recruitment Agencies,” also known as Sub-Decree 190, has been touted by the government as a way to regulate the country’s burgeoning labor recruitment agency industry. More than 30 agencies are officially registered with the Ministry of Labor; most recruit Cambodian women to work as domestic laborers in Malaysia.

An estimated 50,000 Cambodian women and girls have migrated to Malaysia since 2008.

LICADHO has documented horrific abuses in the industry over the past two years, including the use of debt bondage, deaths inside pre-departure training centers, the recruitment of underage workers, illegal detention of workers, the facilitation of forged documents, and the failure to pay salaries. None of these areas are addressed in the new law. Worker protections, meanwhile, are vague, limited in scope, and in many cases less stringent than the 1997 law it superseded, Sub-Decree 57.

Not surprisingly, the government did not conduct meaningful consultations with civil society groups during the drafting process, and systematically refused to share early drafts.

“The drafters of the new law completely ignored years of well-documented abuses, both in Cambodian labor recruitment centers and at workplaces in Malaysia,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for LICADHO. “Instead it seems they focused on how to make life easier for the agencies.”

Despite numerous gaps in the law, the drafters did find space to include a chapter authorizing special “commendation” prizes for recruitment agencies. This speaks volumes about the government’s goals and intent in drafting the sub-decree.

“The irony of this law authorizing ‘gold stars’ for recruitment agencies is particularly bitter, given that the law itself is already a gift,” said LICADHO director Naly Pilorge. “This provision appears to be nothing more than a public relations tool, allowing the government to refurbish the image of agencies tarnished by years of documented abuses.”

Among the most serious oversights in the new law is the failure to address the use of debt bondage to place new recruits in a state of indentured servitude. This well-documented practice is rampant in the industry and involves the use of up-front loans provided as an enticement to begin work. The workers – who are overwhelmingly from poor rural families – are then placed in the agency’s pre-departure centers for training, where they incur further debts for food, lodging, travel documents and transportation. It is not uncommon for workers to build up more than US$1,000 in debts.

In most cases, workers are not allowed to leave the recruitment center until they pay back all of their debts. But repayment is virtually impossible, because the worker is not yet earning any money. In some cases, workers are not even allowed to contact their families. As a result, some take desperate measures. In March, for example, one worker attempted to escape from a pre-departure center through a three-story window. She fell and sustained serious injuries. The worker had made multiple requests to leave the center so that she could see her children. All of the requests were denied.

Another trainee died at the same center just days later, after a prolonged illness. She had asked the center to leave on more than one occasion, but staff refused, demanding that she first pay US$1,500.

“Debt bondage undoubtedly the most serious problem facing domestic migrant workers today,” said Am Sam Ath. “It is unconscionable that the new law does not address this issue.”

Other serious problems in the law include:
▪ The failure to outlaw the practice of unlicensed recruitment agencies “borrowing” the license of other agencies, which makes it more difficult to intervene in cases of abuses against workers and to identify serial abusers.
▪ The failure to mandate that contracts include paid holidays for workers (Article 10 of the old law required 1.5 days per year).
▪ The failure to specify a minimum wage or limit working hours.
▪ The failure to require that contracts contain specific information, including salary, the portion of the salary which shall be sent to the worker’s family, provisions for the repatriation of workers prior to normal termination date, transport expenses and insurance premiums (all of this was required by Article 9 of the old law).
▪ The failure to require that workers themselves actually receive a copy of their labor contract.
▪ No provision ensuring that a worker’s family members have access to information on the worker’s whereabouts, or that family be notified if a worker disappears.
▪ Serious flaws in the penalty provisions. Although there are three penalty tiers, there are no automatic triggers for escalating sanctions. Thus an agency could theoretically receive an infinite number of written warnings (the first tier of sanctions). The law sets no guidelines requiring that more serious punishments, such as suspension of an operating license, be imposed.

Given the sub-decree’s deep structural flaws, LICADHO believes it cannot be salvaged. The government needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with legislation that properly regulates recruitment agencies and provides tangible safeguards for migrant workers from well-documented abuses. Moreover, the process of drafting the new law should be transparent and involve meaningful consultation with relevant civil society groups.

For more information, please contact:
• Mr. AM Sam Ath (Khmer), LICADHO Technical Supervisor, 012-327-770
• Ms. Naly PILORGE (English, French), LICADHO Director, 012-803-650

Download full statement (PDF)

New Sub-Decree on Migrant Labor Fails Dismally on Workers Rights

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