Singapore's move to let in more Cambodian maids has prompted three advocacy groups for migrant workers to call for more safeguards for these domestic workers.
They want the workers to receive better training in the English language and on their legal rights before they leave their country, and greater protection against unscrupulous recruiters who charge high fees and hire underaged girls.
Cambodia was approved as a source country for domestic workers by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last October.
This means Singapore can expect another 1,000 to 1,200 more Cambodian maids this year, according to industry estimates, a rise from the 400 brought in under a pilot scheme introduced in 2013.
The three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Cambodian organisation Legal Support for Children and Women - welcomed the diversification of the migrant workforce in Singapore.
But they added in a joint statement yesterday: "We are concerned about the employment of Cambodian women in Singapore when safeguards against deceptive recruitment and exploitation are not adequate."
They pointed to the difficulties faced by maids from Myanmar, who they said have similar backgrounds to those from Cambodia.
These maids are more likely than Filipinas or Indonesians to speak little or no English. They also tend to get hired through irregular channels and be below the legal age of 23. Often, they are the lowest paid and least likely to have regular days off, said the NGOs, citing their research.
Maids from Cambodia are also saddled with huge debts because of the high fees charged by recruitment agents in their home country.
They are more vulnerable to poor working conditions as well because of the lack of employment protection, the NGOs added.
"We urge the Singapore and Cambodian governments to work together to ensure that Cambodian women are recruited through legal means and receive culturally appropriate training before they are deployed to households here. They should also be educated about their legal rights," said the statement.
During the three-year pilot scheme, Home and TWC2 sheltered five Cambodian women. The women could not speak English well and experienced verbal or physical abuse or had their salaries withheld.
Home's acting executive director Jolovan Wham said lack of communication is a big problem, as "it's easy for misunderstandings to happen and tensions to rise, which may escalate to abuse".
An MOM spokesman said laws and processes are in place to help ensure the maids, like those from other sources, are not exploited.
For instance, penalties for maid abuse are up to 1.5 times those for the same offence against other people and a multi-pronged strategy is in place to tackle the problem of underaged workers.
Maids new to Singapore must also attend a one-day programme that includes informing them of their rights and ways to seek help.
With Cambodia added, there are 13 sources for maids on the list.
There are about 237,100 foreign maids in Singapore. Most are from the Philippines and Indonesia. The others are from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand. MOM does not provide figures on the number of maids hired from each of the 13 places.
Nation Employment director Lim Chee Chong said demand for Cambodian maids has been rising steadily by about 10 per cent each month since the country got on the list.
The agency has brought in more than 300 Cambodian maids since 2013. "So far the feedback and the return and transfer rates have been about the same as those of the other territories," said Dr Lim.