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Caution: Children at work

Labour legislation in Cambodia is so weak and so often ignored that half the Kingdom’s children between the ages of seven and 14 participate in the workforce, the world’s largest federation of unions has told the World Trade Organisation General Council in Geneva.

Children, women and ethnic and indigenous minorities suffer the most under the Kingdom’s “corrupt” enforcement of labour law, according to the International Trade Union Confederat-ion, which has 150 million members.

Yesterday it presented its report detailing how Cambodia falls short of international labour standards, along with a list of recommendations to the WTO, which is conducting a trade policy review of Cambodia concluding tomorrow.

“Poor compliance with international labour standards, especially with regard to trade-union rights, child labour and forced labour” form the key criticisms of the Kingdom’s employment environment.

“About 52 per cent of children aged between seven and 14, a figure that stands for over 1.4 million children in absolute terms, performed work in economic activities,” the report says.

Seven out of every 10 child workers between the ages of five and 17 work in the agricultural sector. “Children work with dangerous pesticides and chemicals in agriculture and often with dangerous machinery in industrial production,” the ITUC's report says.

“The scope of the Labour Law does not cover all working children, and the law is not adequately enforced in practice,” it says.

ITUC director of social policy James Howard told the Post neglect of child labour  issues was not only abuse of children but would hurt the  economy.

“In the end, there will be uneducated youths who will not be able to make a serious contribution to the [economy],” he said from Geneva.

Cambodia’s Labour Law was drafted in 1997. There have been murmurs of an updated law being drafted, but this lengthy process has yet to come to fruition.

The International Labour Organis-ation told the Post yesterday it was working with the Royal Government and was at the “very preliminary stage” of developing amendments to the law.

ILO specialist Joseph Menacherry said the child labour situat-ion in Cambodia was “improving significantly” and that by next month, the salt sector would be free of child labour.

But he also said there was no country-wide system for monitoring child labour. Monitoring was conducted sporadically – geographically and qualitatively – by unconnected government departments and NGOs.

“The ILO is developing a monitoring mechanism,” Menacherry said. “The only child labour survey was conducted a decade ago, and these are the only solid figures we have.

“The ILO has already signed agreements with the government to conduct a second survey, and we expect results to be ready in June or July next year.”

James Sutherland, spokesman for the child-welfare NGO Friends International, agreed that child labour statistics were “very difficult to depend on”.

“To know exactly, we would need to be talking to parents – but even then, children are constantly migrating to the city or overseas for work,” Sutherland said. “Our concern is always children who should be in school and not out working.”

On June 1,  Cambodian Child-ren’s Day, the government announced an ambitious plan to remove child street hawkers from Phnom Penh’s Riverside area within a year.

Phnom Penh social affairs director Sorn Sophal said yesterday the number of children selling books and trinkets, or begging in the tourist area, had fallen since then.

“We have agents at all districts in Phnom Penh telling children  they are not at the age to work yet, but to study,” Sorn Sophal said, but was unable to provide figures on the number of rehabilitated children.

“We cannot eliminate child labour 100 per cent, but we try to do it step by step,” he said.

Yesterday, the Post visited children selling books and trinkets along the Riverside.

A 10-year-old incense seller told reporters she had eight siblings and her parents were rubbish collectors. “My mother gets angry with me and fights with me if I do not come to sell things to support my family,” she said.

A 13-year-old book seller backed away from reporters in alarm. “I was interviewed one year ago by reporters, and the next day I was banned from selling anything by the police. I am very afraid,” she said.

Cambodian Labour Confederation president Ath Thon said  many children were  being forced to work in hazardous conditions at brick factories and salt factories.

Others were being trafficked into the sex industry, he said.

“The law enforcement is still weak and impunity remains,” Ath Thon said. “As long as there are limits on free speech, child labour, forced labour and discrimination against women will continue.” 

Additional reporting by Sen David



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