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Cambodians weigh up risks of working in Kuwait

Plan to send 5,000 workers to the Middle East next year worries rights groups after cases of abuse and exploitation

Sineat Yon and Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

Sineat Yon and Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

Published: November 28, 2018 09:10 AM GMT

Updated: November 28, 2018 09:30 AM GMT

Cambodians weigh up risks of working in Kuwait

The sister of Filipina worker Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found inside a freezer in Kuwait, cries in front of the casket containing her sister at Manila airport on Feb. 16. President Rodrigo Duterte responded by banning workers from going to Kuwait. The Cambodian and Kuwaiti governments announced in October that Cambodia will send about 5,000 workers to Kuwait next year. (Photo by AFP)

Ary Ramsan wipes away tears as she recalls her time working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.

Three years ago, the 24-year-old Cham Muslim, a minority that has lived in Cambodia for generations, migrated to the Middle East, where she was exploited from her first day at work.

"They sent me to a family with 11 children. I worked for 15 to 16 hours per day, and I wasn't paid anything," she told ucanews.com.

When she decided to complain, she was sent to another family. Again she had to work from early in the morning until late at night. Again she didn't receive her salary. She couldn't handle it anymore.

"I told my Saudi employer that I wanted to go home, that I had done enough work to pay for a plane ticket back to Cambodia. But the employer told me it wasn't enough yet. He forced me to sleep with him. He raped me several times," Ary Ramsan said.

Her story shows why many people have misgivings after the Cambodian and Kuwaiti governments announced in October that Cambodia will send about 5,000 workers to Kuwait next year following an agreement made in 2009.

Human rights activists and labor organizations are deeply concerned about the plan. In recent years, several Cambodians have been abused and exploited in other countries in the Middle East.

Ary Ramsan wasn't the only Cambodian woman to have a horrible experience in the Middle East. In the past two years, at least six women have returned home with stories of exploitation and abuse. Human rights organizations have been warning of the risks of sending workers to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait for years. In 2011, Cambodian recruitment agencies decided not to send maids to Kuwait out of fear they would be abused.

The Cambodian government seems convinced that sending 5,000 workers in 2019 shouldn't be a problem. Some will work as maids in households, others will be employed in factories, on construction sites or in agriculture. Minister of Labor Ith Samheng said they will be protected by the memorandum of understanding that was signed almost 10 years ago.

Zaher M. Al-Khuraineg, counselor of the Kuwait embassy in Phnom Penh, gave an assurance that Cambodian workers had nothing to worry about. "And even if there are problems, there's a Cambodian embassy in Kuwait. If the workers face a problem, they can go there and we will provide a lawyer. We will make sure that all of their rights are protected," he told ucanews.com.

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Kuwait, however, has a bad reputation for protecting migrants. Amnesty International said in its most recent report that "migrant workers continue to face exploitation and abuse" under the controversial kafala system, which monitors migrant workers and often forces them to hand over their passports to employers. This system is widely used in the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in February that the kafala system can force workers to remain with abusive employers. Workers that try to flee can be arrested, fined, imprisoned for up to six months, deported and barred from returning to Kuwait for at least six years.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, has serious concerns about Cambodia's plans.

"Many of these workers will face horrible rights abuses because Kuwait's system ties the worker to their employer, making them vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, forced overtime, underpayment of wages and deprivation of personal freedoms. Within months of deployment, we will start getting reports of seized passports, sexually abused maids, and injured, unpaid construction and agriculture workers," he told ucanews.com.

Robertson said that if the Cambodian government is serious about protecting its workers, it needs to set up a hotline and a team of dedicated labor officers at the Cambodian embassy that can intervene and provide shelter for abused workers.

"The embassy would have to be prepared to fight for compensation and back-pay for workers who are injured or cheated. But we've never seen the Cambodian government do any of this," Robertson said.

Early this year the death of a Filipino worker, Joanna Demafelis, led to public outrage. Her body was found in a freezer of an abandoned home that belonged to a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife who lived in Kuwait. President Rodrigo Duterte responded by banning workers from going to Kuwait and called on those already there to return home. A few months, later the couple that hired Demafelis were given the death penalty. The ban was then lifted.

But such controversy has not deterred the Cambodian government from sending more workers overseas. An estimated 1-2 million Cambodians already work abroad, most of them in Thailand. In June, Prime Minister Hun Sen said his government was exploring labor markets in the Middle East to send them Cambodian workers. He said that such practice is commonplace, pointing to the millions of Filipinos employed abroad.

El Maiyan is one of those Cambodians who have already tried their luck in the Middle East.

Three years ago, she went to Saudi Arabia through a Vietnamese agency that employed her as a household maid. She worked 16 hours per day, seven days per week. Being underfed and overworked, she got sick and fell down the stairs. She wasn't given enough time to recover from the accident and had an infection in her arm.

"My employer then sent me back to the agency and I was sent to another house," El Maiyan said. "But I felt sick and I refused to work. The lady in the house didn't believe me. She kicked me and slapped me every day. She pushed me against the wall. After a few days, I started to cough up blood. Only then she realized that I wasn't pretending, but that I was really sick."

The 32-year-old Cham Muslim made her way back to Stung Treng, a province in the east of Cambodia. But the scars are still there. "I still feel sick until this day. And I feel scared as soon as anyone shouts or yells at me."

What happened to El Maiyan in Saudi Arabia is likely to happen to other Cambodians when they head out to Kuwait, HRW's Robertson warned.

"Just wait, Kuwait will be a repeat of the same kinds of abuses seen in Saudi Arabia," he said. 

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