Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Domestic workers call for social protections amid “slave-like” conditions

Domestic workers bring their employers' children to play outside in Phnom Penh, June 16, 2021.CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Domestic workers bring their employers' children to play outside in Phnom Penh, June 16, 2021.CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Domestic workers are calling for government support after publicly speaking out about poor working conditions, repeated abuse at the hands of employers and a lack of social protections.

In an online forum celebrating the 10th International Domestic Worker Day held by the Independent Democratic of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), domestic workers called on the government to provide them with social protections under the National Social Security Fund. At the moment, only garment and textile workers are eligible to receive these benefits.

Speaking during the Zoom call, Khut Sokhuntheary, a 30-year-old housemaid, said that her employer had exploited her labor and restricted her right to speak to people outside her workplace.

“I was not treated warmly by the house owners,” she said. “They considered us like slaves.

Sokhuntheary, who quit her job as a domestic worker a month ago, is now looking for new work.

“They gave us food after they had eaten, and they did not give us full rights and freedom,” she said. “They restricted our right to contact outsiders, apart from people living in the household.”

“We didn’t have enough time to take breaks,” she complained. “We endured hardships as house owners exploited our labor, and we still feel that impact.”

Another housemaid, 28-year-old Khong Sreyleak, shared similar experiences during her work caring for other people’s children.

“They didn’t give us enough rights, they discriminated against us, and they treated domestic workers like slaves,” she said. As a result of these conditions, Sreyleak stopped working as a nanny about a year ago. She now works as a cleaner.

According to the International Labour Organization’s research in 2018, there are approximately 240,000 domestic workers in Cambodia. Their incomes make up a large proportion of Cambodian households’ revenues, and have played a role in lifting many families out of poverty.

But that work has come at a cost. IDEA president Vorn Pao said that domestic workers needed adequate rights, freedoms and social protections from the government, noting that domestic workers do not have any social assistance in case of illness or work-related injuries.

“Till now there are very few domestic workers who are receiving social protection from the government,” he said.

Pao noted that just five to 10 percent of employers gave social protection to their workers, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on many domestic workers as they lost their jobs and the income they need to support their day-to-day livelihood.

Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at labor rights group CENTRAL, said that the government has ignored calls for domestic workers to be given state benefits for their work.

“All citizens and workers need to have protective rights, and labor rights like other workers,” he said. He stressed that these workers faced many challenges including lower wages and a lack of fundamental rights and freedoms, especially the right to join a union to protect their own interests.

“[The government] have ignored us [domestic workers] because we don’t show our voices,” Tharo said. “If domestic workers are not engaged together and don’t understand our rights, we will continue to face exploitation and be excluded from social protections.”

Labor ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said that the government was not involved in drawing up contracts between domestic workers and their employers.

“Workers themselves or informal workers’ representative informal workers have to go to the labor ministry to receive social protection,” he said.

He urged domestic workers to report any abuse or violence they suffered in the course of their work to the government.

“The government does not stay at home with them, so they should file a complaint,” he said.