A Malaysian workers' rights group urged Cambodia on Friday to stop supplying housemaids to Malaysia, claiming many are abused and made to work like slaves because of inadequate protection.
Malaysia has recruited thousands of Cambodian women since neighboring Indonesia barred domestic workers from coming to Malaysia in 2009 following a string of high-profile cases of assault by employers.
Officials estimate there are more than 50,000 Cambodian maids in Malaysia, including 30,000 who arrived this year.
A Cambodian maid was found dead in Malaysia last month under mysterious circumstances, while another was rescued by Malaysian police after she was allegedly abused and had her head shaved bald by her employer.
Irene Fernandez, director of the rights group Tenaganita, said her organization helped another 41 Cambodian maids, some as young as 15, after they were rescued or ran away from their employers in the past six months because of abuse or unpaid wages.
"Today, another nation of domestic workers goes through the same experiences of torture, control and denial of rights," Fernandez said in a statement. "Cambodian maids now remain in a condition of forced labor with practices of modern day slavery."
Tenaganita urged Cambodia to ban maids from coming to Malaysia until tougher laws are enacted to protect their rights.
Malaysia is among Southeast Asia's top importers of foreign labor, employing more than 200,000 mainly Indonesian maids. Many households rely on maids for cooking, cleaning and looking after children and the elderly.
Indonesia is expected to lift its ban on maids after signing a deal with Malaysia in May for better conditions to curb abuses.
Ung Vantha, an official with the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said his government is concerned about abuse and is working with authorities and activists to tackle the problem.
The embassy is investigating claims that the maid found dead last month was beaten by her employers, he said. Police have said the girl died of pneumonia.
Visiting Cambodian opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said the maid, who was found dead outside her employer's house, was only 15, according to her family, and not 22 as stated on her passport. Domestic workers in Malaysia must be at least 21.
"We are talking about child labor here. Young girls from poor families are targeted by middlemen who falsified their age in their passport," she said.
Malaysian police and immigration officials familiar with maid issues could not be immediately reached.
Fernandez said about half of the 41 Cambodian maids helped by Tenaganita were under 21. All claimed they were overworked, not given days off and had their passports confiscated by employers.
More than half alleged they suffered physical abuse, while about one-fifth were believed to be sexually harassed.
Most returned to Cambodia after Tenaganita negotiated for compensation and wage settlements with their employers. They did not seek police help because they were depressed and eager to return home, Fernandez said.