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Forced to work as maids in Saudi Arabia, Cambodians beg to be repatriated

Dozens of Cambodian women trafficked to work as maids in Saudi Arabia are demanding that their embassy arrange for them to return home, saying that since authorities rescued them nearly two weeks ago, they have lacked access to adequate food and their health is rapidly deteriorating.

On April 18, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor confirmed that 78 Cambodian migrant workers had been tricked into working in Saudi Arabia, but have now been rescued and placed in hotel rooms under the care of the Cambodian Embassy. 

The ministry said 51 of the women are in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, 15 in the capital Riyadh, and 12 in Dammam, on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

The Ministries of Labor and Foreign Affairs, along with the Cambodian Embassy, claimed to be purchasing flights for the victims to return to Cambodia, promising to return 29 on April 19, 27 on April 20, and the final 22 on April 21.

However, on April 27, RFA Khmer received videos from several of the victims in which they claimed to remain stranded in Saudi Arabia.

In the videos, the women call for help from former Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife Bun Rany, and their son Prime Minister Hun Manet. 

They said the companies that brought them to Saudi Arabia had “violated their contracts,” leaving them mired in legal issues surrounding their salaries and basic rights. They claim several of them were subjected to physical abuse by the households where they worked, including being denied food and sleep.

They singled out Saudi firm BAB, which places workers from Cambodia-based company Fatina Manpower, for allegedly threatening them and accusing them of working illegally in the country. Some of the victims said they were unable to leave the country because BAB had refused to terminate their contracts.

The women told RFA that since their rescue, some of them had been “confined” to their hotel rooms “without proper access to food,” and said they were appealing for help because they could “no longer wait for the government” to send them home.

According to Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor, nearly 1.4 million people were provided with employment opportunities to work abroad in 2023, more than 93% of which are in Thailand, while the remainder are in South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

Stranded in Saudi Arabia

RFA contacted one of the women, Thaing Sokyee, who said she had been forced to work as a maid in multiple homes each day without being provided enough food to eat before she was rescued, and is now suffering from health issues.

“I’ve called on the [labor] ministry and the embassy to find prompt solutions for us so that we may return to Cambodia,” she said. “We’ve faced mounting difficulties; our bodies have deteriorated as we were forced to work without food.”

Doeun Pheap, another victim who said she is sick as a result of her working conditions, told RFA that she has been confined to her room since her rescue and has not been permitted by embassy staff to go outside to purchase medicine.

She said the staff told her to wait for the government to send her home and that she was advised to record a video clip “saying that my health condition is getting better and that I have been provided with enough food to eat.”

“I still hurt all over my body – I’m able to stand up, but my waist and my back still hurt,” she said, adding that embassy staff had provided her with “rice, but not food.”

“I didn’t do it [record the video] because I was too hungry and exhausted; I couldn’t bear doing anything.”

Other victims claimed that Uk Sarun, Cambodia’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had “threatened to abandon us if we continue to publicly call for help.”

Trafficking designation

On Monday, Ambassador Uk Sarun confirmed to RFA Khmer that only 16 of the 78 women had been returned home so far. He said that some of the women had faced a shortage of food due to the ongoing holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast during the day and only eat at night.

He did not address claims by victims that he had threatened to withhold assistance if they continued to speak out about their situation.

The Khmer Times reported last week that 29 of the 78 had been safely repatriated as of April 19, while the rest were awaiting documentation to leave, but provided no attribution for the numbers.

The report said that the embassy was providing the victims with food and accommodation and cited Cambodian Ministry of Labor spokesman Katta Orn as saying that the ministry was conducting an investigation into the employment scam.

RFA spoke with Bun Chenda, a Cambodia-based anti-human trafficking officer for labor rights group CENTRAL, who said the women had been “exploited” when they were sent to Saudi Arabia without proper compliance with labor contracts.

“We are not sure if the government is treating their cases as human trafficking,” he said. “If they are being rescued as human trafficking victims, intervention would likely be easier and they wouldn’t be subject to legal action by a Saudi Arabian company.”

Translated by Yun, Samean. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.