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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Axe hovers unfairly over legal child workers

Axe hovers unfairly over legal child workers

THE International Labor Organization (ILO) says ignorance of the legal minimum

age for employment in Cambodia's garment industry means many legally employed

young workers face unfair dismissal.

Mar Sophea, the ILO's National

Program Manager, said many employers believe 18 is the minimum legal age for

their workers, but under Cambodia labor law the minimum age is actually

15.

" [The ILO] really wants employers to understand that according to

Cambodian labor law, children can be employed at the age of 15 unless the

working conditions are harmful to their physical development and their

morality," said Sophea.

If employers mistakenly refuse to hire workers

under 18 years old, there is a danger that desperately poor families will send

their daughters to work in the sex industry till they reach that age, he

said.

Cambodia in 1993 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of

Children, which states that children have the right not to be exploited

economically.

The National Assembly passed a new Labor Code in 1997

which set the minimum age of employment at 15, but states that children aged 12

to 15 can perform light work that is "not hazardous to their health and

psychological development", and will not affect their attendance at school or

vocational training courses.

ILO Convention 138, which was ratified by

the Government in 1999, sets the minimum age for admission to employment at "the

age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, not less than 15

years old". Convention 138 further states that the minimum age allowed for light

work is 13. For work considered hazardous the minimum age is set at

18.

Determining the real age of workers is a challenge for both employers

and labor inspectors.

The two most common forms of ID that employers

depend upon for information about their workers - ID cards issued by the

Ministry of Interior and Family Books issued by local authorities - can only be

obtained when a Cambodia citizen turns 18.

But for a bribe of only $20 or

$30, a worker under 18 years old can buy both forms of identification with the

name and age of their choice, said Sophea.

He warns that unless MoSA

clarifies minimum-age regulations to the industry, 15-to-17-year-old workers

will continue to use fake IDs and might be placed in dangerous working

conditions within the factories.

Complicating the situation are the

policies of buyers, which are not in line with Government laws, or international

labor standards, said Sophea.

The US-based company Nike Incorporated,

which has clothing produced at a number of factories in Cambodia, will not

contract work to factories that employ workers below the age of 18 to produce

footwear, and below 16 to produce apparel.

The code-of-vendor conduct for

the American clothing company Gap Incorporated states that the minimum age of

employees at factories where they have their clothes manufactured is 14. In

countries where the minimum age is higher, their manufacturing partners must

meet the legal age requirement.

Roger Tan, Secretary-General of the

Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia, said ignorance of the law is not

the issue: manufacturers have a clear understanding of legal age

requirements.

"Officially it is 15, but our factories would rather have

18-year-olds because many American and European buyers' codes of conduct say 18

years old.

"There are so many workers around Cambodia, we do not need the

13, 14, or 15-year-olds - there's no special reason to [hire them]," said Tan.

"It doesn't mean if you're younger, you're cheaper. There's a surplus of workers

to choose from so why should we risk going against Government or buyer

regulations."

Though it has come to the manufacturers' attention that

simply firing all legal workers between the ages of 15 and 17 might not be the

answer, Tan doubts that the industry will benefit from using workers in that age

bracket if they must be given shorter working hours, or if the manufacturers are

forced to subsidize their continuing education.

Tan said determining the

age of many Cambodian workers is difficult because of poor records and fake ID

papers. "Even some workers don't know how old they are."

He said that

because international trade and human rights are both important factors for

Cambodia to take into consideration, it would be useful if the Government

performed a census and issued everyone with proper IDs.

Huot Chanthy,

Acting Director of MoSA's Labor Inspection Department, agrees that factory

owners are not confused about the minimum age requirement; the owners simply

don't want to hire 15-to-17-year-olds because of the regulations that must be

abided by if they hire workers under 18.

Apart from some vague guidelines

about what those regulations might be, the Government has yet to provide

employers the legal working conditions for 15-to-17-year-old

workers.

Chanthy said MoSA is developing these regulations now, and will

soon submit a Prakas to an interministerial Labor Advisory Committee.

He

said labor activists need to negotiate with the employers to rehire workers

between the ages of 15 and 18 so that at least they could work part time and

still have the opportunity to attend school.

Chea Vichea, President of

the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), said the

union is actively opposing the use of underage workers in the garment

industry.

Though the legal minimum age to work is 15, Vichea said factory

managers do not want to hire workers at that age. "If the factories hire a

15-year-old they have to pay that worker to go the school, and give them short

working hours."

He said because the factories profit less from workers

less than 18 years old they simply don't hire them unless the young workers have

fake identification which allows factory management to pretend they do not have

to abide by the laws governing the use of labor between the ages of 15 and

17.

Though the FTUWKC is attempting to defend the rights of the children,

not all appreciate the union's efforts. "Some workers are angry with me because

we cause some workers below the age of 15 to lose their jobs, Vichea said."

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