A new company is hoping to transform the country’s domestic service industry for the better. Ellie Dyer meets the Cambodian and expat team behind the ambitious agency Maid in Cambodia, with photography by Charlse Fox.

Traditionally, when Cambodia’s domestic service industry hits the headlines, it’s often been for negative reasons. Over the years, tens of thousands of local maids have migrated abroad to countries like Malaysia, with an unlucky few suffering shocking abuse at the hands of their employers. Yet a topic that has often skirted below the surface is the conditions faced by those working within homes in the Kingdom itself.

In a largely informal sector – maids are often hired ad hoc through word-of-mouth or via Internet groups – formalised working arrangements and contracts are rare.

According to Marisa Tan, the expat founder of a new agency called Maid In Cambodia, which hopes to improve conditions and pay, domestic helpers can be working full-time, with long hours of unpaid overtime sometimes lumped on top, for as little as $80 a month.

“It all starts with respect. If there’s no respect how can you expect them to treat your house well? Treat your children well?” the mum says, discussing exploitation within the industry.

Maid In Cambodia, which acts as both a training centre for domestic workers and a job placement service, hopes to change all that. The socially responsible business is the brainchild of Tan, who has been living in the Kingdom since 2010, and her Cambodian counterpart Chu Mom Ry from Kampong Cham.

The pair met when Ry came to work in Tan’s home in Phnom Penh. They soon formed a fast friendship, with the family sending her to English classes and supporting her son through university.

“We started communicating and she told me what’s going on [in the domestic service sector]. It got me thinking,” recalls Tan. The seeds of Maid In Cambodia, which launched late last month and is registered with the Ministry of Labour, had been sown.

In a bid to better working environments, the new company aims to improve communication and understanding in both sides of the employer-employee relationships, with the team acting as a sounding board for both sides.

A minimum wage of $120 per month for full-time staff (an agency fee of 25 percent is added on top and passed on to the maid’s employer) along with standard working hours of 8am to 5pm have been set, and all maids that pass through the agency attend a hands-on training course covering topics such as cleaning techniques and education sessions on bacteria and germs. Domestic workers also receive free medical health checks courtesy of a local clinic, called Khema.

Another important aspect to a good working relationship lies in agreeing on what both employers and staff believe the job entails. “Oftentimes what I see is ‘I need a maid – hurry, hurry, hurry’ and then there are no expectations. No one tells them exactly what they want them to do,” says Tan, who is originally from Munich, Germany. “That can result in confusion, disappointment and job loss.”

“If sometimes expectations are through the roof, and if you don’t convey that to somebody, how is that reasonable?” she adds.

Former tailor Chu Mom Ry, who is the new company’s training director, explains that when facing a problem at work – like dealing with employer complaints or having concerns over the provision of food or holiday bonus pay – people’s immediate reaction can be to quit the job and find another one, rather than persevere.

In a bid to set clear parameters, the agency intends to visit homes to mark a checklist of tasks that cleaners are expected to carry out – with doing large amounts of laundry or cooking deemed extra services with add-on prices – as well as matching staff availability with employer needs. This could allow more flexibility for working mothers, a concern raised by domestic workers attending an initial session with the new business.

Ry emphasises that, for her, becoming a domestic worker was a financial improvement on being a tailor. Working with a good employer has allowed her to travel and help her children’s education, and she hopes that the new service can also help women find equally good jobs in which they can thrive.

Indicating that a good working relationship goes both ways, the Cambodian mother also says that building up a successful career can take time, hard work and dedication, but employers can also provide support. “I love my job,” she adds.

“It’s giving them something to be proud about,” says Tan, who hopes to build people’s self-esteem along with a sense of community for domestic workers.

For more information or to enquire about cleaning services, visit maidincambodia.com or email contact@maidincambodia.com