Yi Somphose, Tep Nimol, David Boyle and Eak Soung Chhay
Scores of crying women who said they had been forcibly detained and girls who claimed to have received fake documents to conceal the fact that they were as young as 16-years-old were discovered at a centre owned by the SKMM Investment Group labour recruitment firm yesterday.
A group of 47 women told a Post reporter some 20 under-age girls had been hidden at a restaurant to conceal them from police, while eyewitnesses outside another SKMM facility said they had seen recruits jumping out of windows to escape.
With tears pouring down her cheeks, 29-year-old Dam Nhean said SKMM staff told her that if she wanted to leave the centre to visit her baby, she would have to repay by double the US$800 loan she was given, reiterating claims made by many of the recruits.
“I have been in here seven months already, and I have two children. The youngest one is 17-months-old. I want to go back to take care of my son, but the company didn’t allow me to go out,” she said, adding she had been tricked by a broker into joining the firm.
One girl whisked away by company staff only had time to tell the Post that she was 16 years old and wanted to return to her home in Battambang province.
The legal working age for domestic workers in Cambodia is 18 years old, while in Malaysia it is set at 21.
Police later arrived to conduct investigations at two SKMM facilities in Russey Keo district, where a deputy police chief, who declined to be named, told reporters that more than 70 recruits, many of them under-age, had been found in the two buildings.
The investigations followed a complaint to police on Tuesday from Prak Mun, the uncle of 22-year-old Vutha Channa, who said his niece had been forcibly detained along with 30 other trainees.
Another recruit, Phy Nan, said the company had changed her age on her identity card and birth certificate from 19 to 21.
“I also wanted to return home after hearing [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s speech but was not allowed,” she said.
Last Friday, the premier announced that domestic labour firms were forbidden from training, recruiting and sending domestic workers destined for Malaysia
The temporary ban followed a spate of abuse scandals involving alleged gang rapes, deaths, forced detentions, under-age recruits, falsified documents and a pregnancy from a rape.
Hong Sreypov, 40, said SKMM staff had prohibited trainees from using mobile phones and refused to pay for medical treatment.
SKMM owner Tan Kimseng denied allegations yesterday that his company had forcibly detained trainees and demanded large sums for them to leave the centre.
“It is untrue. If anyone wants to return home, they can just call their parents to pick them up, and they will be given 10,000 riel each,” he said.
An Bunhak, president of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, defended the right of labour recruitment firms to demand money in return for the release of recruits.
“Assume that you are the owner of the company and process all the documents according to the law, and after that, they change their mind to go back home – what do you want from them?” he said.
In what rights groups claim is a blatant contradiction of the PM’s order, the Labour Ministry on Monday told recruitment firms that 3,000 trainees who already had contracts and travel documents would be exempt from the suspension.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said yesterday Lab-our Minister Vong Soth should have to explain his defiance of the temporary halt.
“It totally underlines the reason why I sent the original message to the Prime Minister. He heard me, he knows about the situation, he gave an order. Those who do not follow the Prime Minister’s order should be sanctioned,” she said.
“If the company has made the investment [in training and documents], it’s bad luck – that’s the risk they take.”
Vong Soth could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, reiterated his position that recruits handed contracts and travel documents before the suspension were legally all-owed to be sent to Malaysia.
A group of recruits also said they were concerned that four trainees – Heng Srey Nhol, Votha Channa, Sok Sokpheap and Thon Sela – who escaped after filing complaints to a local rights group had disappeared, as they had received no confirmation from their parents that they had arrived home.
Witnesses outside the second SKMM training centre said they had heard cries from the building and seen trainees suffer ser-ious injuries after attempting to jump from a first-story window to escape.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with the rights group Licadho, said the SKMM incident proved it was hardly surprising to discover that trainees in a recruitment centre were being held against their will or hidden from authorities because of their age.
“[It proves] once again that the companies’ claim that all these girls are going there on a voluntary basis is hocus pocus,” Pellerin said.