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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Child labor report accused of jeopardising GSP

Child labor report accused of jeopardising GSP

T HE release of an NGO report on child labor, just after Cambodia officially applied

for GSP status from the United States, saw two Ministers leap to the defense of labor

conditions in the Kingdom.

Suy Sem, the Minister of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans' Affairs, categorically

declared that there are "no factories" using child labor in Cambodia.

Asked about brick factories - the best-known example of children working in factories

- Sem said that they were not factories, but "cooperatives".

"The work involves the whole family, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.

It's [not the] employers who hire the children to work."

Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh expressed a similar view, saying that brick factory

children were "sometimes just hanging around their mother, helping her voluntarily.

"The kids are helping their mothers, or maybe a 15 or 16-year-old is trying

to find a job to make a living. Do you say 'No, go and be beggar in the street instead?'

"This is a transitional, temporary situation. It's better to provide jobs for

them than let them do other things, become thieves or robbers."

Both Ministers acknowledged the use of children in "informal" employment

- working with their parents or siblings to support the family livlihood - but said

that was to be expected in any poor country.

Their ire was raised by the report Child Labor in Cambodia, prepared by the Asian-American

Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and the human rights group Licadho.

The Ministry of Commerce, which last month submitted an application to the US for

Cambodia to be granted Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) ranking, alleged that

the report was designed to stop GSP being granted.

Prasidh accused AAFLI - which has worked closely with the government on advising

on a new labor law which may clear the way for GSP - of changing its position.

"This kind of report is detrimental to GSP eligibility for Cambodia. There is

no need to report this just because you are paid to do this job.

"You have to think of the national interests. It is at this time that Cambodia

has a chance at obtaining GSP. This is very important. We want GSP so we can improve

the situation, to foster a prosperous economic environment here."

The report's researchers interviewed 245 working children in 14 occupations in Phnom

Penh and five provinces.

The report concludes that children's rights and current child labor regulations are

not being adequately enforced, and argues that the problem is only going to worsen

with economic development.

The report acknowledges that most working children do not work for wages, nor do

they work in the industrial sector, but predicts a gradual transfer of the child

workforce to commerical enterprises.

"As Cambodia's economy grows, the use of child labor is likely to escalate.

Because most Cambodian children are destitute and poor, they are a cheap and easy

source of labor for Cambodia and foreign investors to exploit."

But the researchers did identify children working across a range of occupations in

industries, including brick and cement factories, rubber plantations and construction

sites, as "a cheap and exploitable resource".

In some cases, children were working alongside their parents, a reflection of "substandard

wages" which meant the parents could not earn enough themselves to look after

their families.

Children were found working in 30 of 67 brick factories in Kandal province, mostly

involved with the loading of bricks onto trucks. The children, some as young as eight

or nine, reported frequent injuries from falling bricks.

Most of the children didn't know their earnings, since their wages was paid to their

parents or guardians. More than half of the 55 children interviewed who worked in

brick factories said their families didn't earn enough, so they borrowed money from

their employers.

Some of the worst horror stories cited in the report involve salt fields in Kampot,

where families are paid by the fields' owners to collect salt under an arrangement

similar to sharecropping.

Seven children aged 12-15 were interviewed, including one, aged 14, who had worked

the fields for five years. Another child reported working so hard that he once coughed

up blood, while another - with an open sore on his foot, aggravated by the salt -

was in tears, along with his mother.

Children were also found working in the service industry, and the "informal

sector" - as tour guides, street vendors and stone-crushers - and as domestic

servants. Others included a 15-year soldier who was found in Siem Reap, and a 15-year-old

girl who had been a prostitute since she was 12.

The report's main recommendation is for a joint government/NGO taskforce on child

labor, but it lays ultimate reponsiblity for eliminating child labor with the government.

"Child labor laws exist in Cambodia today, and must be enforced," says

the report, urging the government to "uphold and strengthen existing policies

and laws" and "provide access to school and services."

A Nov 1 statement issued by the Ministry of Commerce complained that the report "jumped

to the conclusion" that because of "some cases" of child labor, Cambodia

should be denied GSP.

In fact, GSP is not mentioned in the report. But Cham Prasidh, in a interview, reaffirmed

his view that AAFLI - after earlier promoting GSP for Cambodia - was now opposing

it.

Prasidh showed the Post a copy of a Oct 30 issue of the Mekong Digest, a weekly publication

of the International Center in Washington DC. The issue quoted AAFLI's Cambodia representative,

Bama Athreya, as saying that because of alleged incidents of child labor, forced

labor and poor working conditions, Cambodia did not meet the labor standards required

by GSP status.

Athreya, for her part, denied making any such statement.

But she confirmed that the AFL-CIO - the US' largest trade union, with which AAFLI

is affiliated - was currently preparing a submission to the US government on Cambodia's

elibibility for GSP.

The AFL-CIO, in a press release, said that it was "monitoring the situation

very carefully to determine whether the Government of Cambodia has acted to comply

with international worker rights standards."

In apparent support for Cambodia's hotly-contested new draft law, the statement concluded

that: "The AFL-CIO will not be in a position to recommend the award of GSP benefits

to Cambodia until a labor law that meets international standards is passed by the

National Assembly."

Athreya said the child labor report was "not about some trade agenda, it's about

trying to get programs for helping children."

Licadho, in a press statement, reiterated that the report had not mentioned GSP,

and that the human rights NGO had expressed no opinion about GSP for Cambodia.

"Licadho refuses to be made a scapegoat for any decisions about GSP, which are

the remit of the US government alone..." said the report, adding that it would

be surprised if NGO reports had any influence in such matters.

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