Cambodia sent its first batch of maids to work in Hong Kong on Wednesday as the Asian financial hub scrambles to meet growing demand for domestic helpers after a series of abuse scandals.
Hong Kong is home to more than 300,000 foreign maids, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia.
But high-profile cases of abuse and forced labour have seized global headlines in recent years and threatened to stem the tide of migrant helpers.
Hong Kong has turned to Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries where the average monthly wage is around US$100, to offset a potential maid shortage.
The city’s population is rapidly ageing and demand for domestic helpers is predicted to soar among those wealthy enough to afford them.
Under the pilot project, six agencies were authorised in August to recruit Cambodian domestic workers to work in Hong Kong.
Fourteen women who have received basic training in Cantonese among other skills flew to Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Seik Malay, 30, told AFP said she made the painful decision to leave her nine-year-old daughter behind in Cambodia to earn US$550 a month on a two-year contract in Hong Kong.
“With that salary, I will be able to support my family,” she said, adding that she was not worried about the potential for mistreatment at the hands of Hong Kong employers.
Ngoy Rith, deputy chief of Cambodia’s labour department, who is travelling to Hong Kong with the maids, downplayed concerns about exploitation despite a recent slew of cases of abuse.
“We have already prepared everything to handle those concerns,” he told reporters before departure.
He said each Cambodian maid would be allowed to use a smartphone to contact their relatives or officials if they needed help.
Cambodia expects to send about 1,000 maids to Hong Kong next year.
A 2016 report by the Justice Centre found that one in six foreign maids in Hong Kong are subject to “forced labour”.
Rights groups say unscrupulous employment agencies plunge helpers into debt and withhold their passports, while local restrictions such as requiring maids to live with their employers, often in tiny rooms, make it difficult to escape abuse.
In September 2016 hundreds of maids marched through Hong Kong after several helpers fell to their deaths as they tried to clean windows.
In 2015 employer Law Wan-tung was jailed for beating and starving her Indonesian helper.
Myanmar began sending domestic workers to the city in 2014.
But most returned home within months and the government later banned its women from working in Hong Kong over abuse concerns.