Will Cambodia’s domestic workers be celebrating Labor Day?

Not to be confused with the US Labor Day in September, International Labor Day stems from the 19th century labor movement against long hours and poor rates of pay, and the birth of trade unions in places like the United States and United Kingdom. Today, International Labor Day means celebrating and standing up for worker’s rights all over the world.

In Cambodia, working conditions are often unjust, badly paid and can be abusive, and one sector where this is particularly prevalent is domestic work. Those who work in housekeeping, cooking and cleaning claim they are not treated like ‘real’ workers under Cambodian law and have been struggling to have their rights heard in recent years.

Add to this ongoing issues with human trafficking for labor to other countries in Southeast Asia, notably for low-paid or near-slave-like domestic work and there can be little to celebrate this Labor Day.

Phnom Penh has seen big street campaigns for better working conditions in the last few years, with some of the strongest protests coming from garment workers, another sector notorious for poor conditions. But where does the Cambodian domestic worker stand this May 1st?

Domestic issues in Cambodia

Cambodia has yet to ratify Convention 189 from the ILO, which sets out minimum standards for the treatment of domestic workers and would ensure better protection for Cambodian staff working in Cambodia.

Since 2012, the Cambodian Domestic Network (CDWN) - the first union to protect the rights of domestic staff in the country – has been working specifically with the government towards getting these international standards met.

But stories continue to emerge of six or seven day weeks, wages as low as $75 or even $50 a month and no provision for things like maternity leave and childcare. Cambodia’s domestic workforce, the majority of which constitutes women, are not given a fair deal. Moreover, living in with their employers, many are left vulnerable to exploitation, isolation and sexual abuse.

Labor trafficking abroad

The lack of protection for domestic workers in neighbouring countries like Malaysia led the Cambodian government to ban the migration of Cambodian domestic workers there in 2011.

However, only this year, Chab Dai has dealt with a case of domestic labor trafficking to Malaysia. A woman was told she could find work as a hairdresser by an agency in Cambodia and that the company in Malaysia would cover all her transport, visa and food costs upfront in exchange for her first 3 months wages. When she arrived in Malaysia, she was actually sent to work as a domestic worker, toiling from morning until midnight and often with only one or two breaks for food.

Fortunately, the woman’s parents reported this case to the Chab Dai Case Support Team so that they could work with the Cambodian Embassy to repatriate her. She now works as a kitchen hand in a rural province in Cambodia.

This is just one case we have been able to intervene with and in this instance, we were able to secure a good resolution. Chab Dai retains a close relationship with the Embassy in Malaysia, as well as others in Thailand and China to deal with these illegal, cross-border migrations more effectively.

But as offices and businesses across the country – and the globe - close for the public holiday this Friday, it’s likely that not all domestic workers in Cambodia will be able to join with the celebrations, or get their voices heard.

Story by Laura Gavin. Photo courtesy of Courtney Patch.