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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Crisis poses added hurdles to elimination of child labour

Crisis poses added hurdles to elimination of child labour

Photo by: Sovann Philong

Two child labourers collect plastic bottles for recycling along Phnom Penh’s Street 63 this week. World Day Against Child Labour, observed today, marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention stressing the need to end the worst forms of child labour. Members of the ILO and other groups say the crisis poses additional hurdles to achieving this goal.

OU Kunthear, 19, is one of tens of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia who have lost their jobs as factories across the Kingdom have shut down as a result of the economic crisis.

As a garment worker, Ou Kunthear would regularly send US$30 back to her family in Kampong Speu province. Since losing her factory job, she can no longer send remittances, leaving her parents too poor to pay for food.

In response, her parents have taken her younger siblings - all under the age of 15 - out of school and forced them to work washing clothes and making charcoal.

"I pity my younger siblings, because they should be learning. They should not be working over charcoal stoves or washing stations," she said.

The eighth World Day Against Child Labour, observed today, marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of an International Labour Organisation convention stressing the need to end the worst forms of child labour.

As the global economic crisis has hit Cambodia, however, pressure has mounted on families to pull their children out of school and push them into the workforce, experts said.

According to a statement released Thursday, ChildFund Australia estimated that 40 percent of all children aged between 7 and 17 years  are currently engaged in some form of child labour.

But the ILO has said that efforts from the government and donors could help transform the crisis into a catalyst for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia.  

"The economic downturn is one of the most unexpected, hardest challenges impacting child labour. But the downturn - even though it's a threat - can be turned into an opportunity," said Joseph Menacherry, the chief technical adviser at the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour.

When the construction sector was growing rapidly, there was a sharp increase in demand for child labour, Menacherry said. As the boom goes bust, there are fewer jobs available to children, he said.

"This gives us an opportunity to be able to put into place sufficient awareness, sufficient sensitivity and sufficient mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, so that once the economy starts to go up, we will be able to ensure that children do not go back to this hazardous construction sector," he said.


Menacherry said that eliminating child labour during an economic crisis has the added benefit of opening up jobs for adults, allowing more families to preserve their incomes and keep their children in school.   
"Why are we sending children to work when there is an economic crisis? When there is an economic crisis we should be pulling children out of work and making sure adults go there," he said.

At the moment, however, the crisis is forcing more children into the worst forms of child labour, said Haidy Ear-Dupuy, advocacy and communications manager for World Vision Cambodia.

"Many workers have lost their jobs and seen their income drop," Ear-Dupuy said, adding that this has led many parents to force their children to find jobs.

Menacherry said the number of children working in hard labour conditions in Cambodia had grown from an estimated 250,000 in 2002 to about 300,000 this year.


A child fixes a motorbike tyre at a mechanic’s shop in Kandal province.

Promoting economic growth

Child labour is one of the major hurdles Cambodia must clear if it is to achieve sustained economic growth in the future, said Bill Salter, director of the ILO's sub-regional office for Southeast Asia.

"Child labour has to be tackled in Cambodia - not only as a social issue, but also as an issue of human resource development that can help the economic growth of the country," he said.

The ILO, with the help of the World Bank and UNICEF, is finalising estimates of how much funding would be necessary to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia.

Menacherry said the task would cost "not more than US$100 million", adding that he viewed the figure as "modest".

Even though child labour has increased over the last seven years, Menacherry said, the ILO's goal to end the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia by 2016 was "extremely realistic" if sufficient resources were made available.

In work, out of school

Knut Harald Ulland, country director for Save the Children, said the economic crisis could cause more teachers to begin collecting informal fees, which would make more families unable to send their children to school.

"Because teachers have felt the impact of the crisis, school fees may have increased" already, he said, calling informal school fees the biggest obstacle to education in Cambodia.

"As long as teachers don't have a living salary, it's difficult to crack down on," he added.

Four years ago, informal fees drove Ran Rin, 12, out of the classroom and into a salt-production job in Kampot province. He told the Post this week that he left school because his family could not afford the fees charged by his teachers.

"Poverty was the obstacle for my studies.... If teachers do not demand money from their students, then children of poor families like me would not have to drop out," he said. 



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