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Look out, the baby-boomers are coming

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Booming population growth will stretch Cambodia's resources

T

hou Bunna is a 19-year-old high school student from Batook High School who, through

halting English, says he would like one day to work as an English teacher and translator.

"I come from a poor family, but one day I hope to have a good job," he

said.

It's a hope shared by hundred's of thousands of young Cambodians who will enter the

employment market over the next few years, but one that will be difficult - if not

impossible - to realize.

After the disaster of the Khmer Rouge years, Cambodians began putting their lives

back together, reuniting old families and starting new ones. The result was a huge

upswing in the birthrate between 1979-1989. Now more than 20 years later, the post-KR

baby boomers are reaching adulthood but the question remains: Is Cambodia prepared

for them?

According to the 1999 census, almost 55% of Cambodians were born after 1979 leaving

the majority of the population still under the age of 20.

The Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Country Economic Review, released last December

notes that the baby boomers are rapidly expanding the Cambodian labor force, foreshadowing

a growing problem with unemployment and underemployment throughout the country.

With unemployment at around 7%, the absence of a social welfare system and jobs difficult

to come by, Cambodian families are left to absorb the unemployment burden.

According to the ADB report, only an increase in economic growth will alleviate the

family burden.

" Past economic growth has not been adequate to productively absorb new entrants

into the labor force [and] underemployment is increasing," the report states.

"Between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of the labor force classified as unpaid

family labor increased from 30 to 45 percent."

According to the census, most Cambodians become economically active after the age

of 15. With around 4 million Cambodians aged between 10 and 20, labor force growth

is outstripping even population growth.

"The labor force is certainly growing more rapidly than the estimated population

growth... perhaps as much as 200,000 per-annum or more," states the ADB report.

The annual growth in the Kingdom's labor force far exceeds the total number of workers

in the country's largest manufacturing sector, the garment industry. An industry

which has taken five years and a generous quota system to build.

ADB Resident Representative Urooj Malik says the impact of the huge increase in the

labor force is yet to be fully investigated.

"We need some sort of better analysis of the 'baby boomer' effect on the labor

market" he said.

Malik says that Cambodia needs to create a diversified economy to deal with the long

term problems posed by the increase in the labor force.

"Relying too heavily on textiles is maybe not wise, it's a very footloose industry,"

Malik said. "The real challenge lies in broadening Cambodia's economic base,

there is a need to diversify the agricultural sector to create more off-farm industries

such as canneries and so on."

Hou Vudthy, the Acting Director of the Department of Employment and Manpower with

the Ministry of Social Affairs Labor Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation

(MOSALVY), acknowledges the challenges posed by the growing labor force, but says

that Cambodia will need assistance from organizations like the ADB in order create

jobs.

"To cut down the unemployment rate we need money and in my department we don't

have it - we have only one computer" he said. "We [MOSALVY] have a program

to try to assist young people, especially young girls, to train them and place them

in work. In the garment factories 80% of the women are aged from 19-23 years and

so Cambodia needs increased investment in the textile industry so it can absorb more

young women."

Government initiatives to generate employment opportunities have followed the "Philippine

model" of marketing low cost Cambodian laborers to other countries.

"We have been sending people to work in Malaysia since 1998," Vudthy said

of MOSALVY's efforts. "We have similar agreements with Singapore and Japan and

we hope that will soon include Hong Kong and Korea."

But these programs provide relatively few jobs and cannot keep up with demand. When

MOSALVY advertised for 1,200 positions working with a Canadian construction firm

to build the Olympic stadium in Greece more than 5,500 people applied.

Malik points out that labor is only one aspect of the baby boomer problem.

"The looming issue is broader than just the question of employment. The population

growth in Cambodia is already very high [2.6%] and, as the baby boomers come to be

of child bearing age, they could have an impact of doubling that growth rate,"

Malik said. "That is something which over the next four to five years will be

of deep concern. It will add enormous pressure on the systems for primary health

care and for primary education."

To this can be added the problems of food security, land availability and, perhaps

most frightening of all, a possible explosion in HIV/AIDS infections.

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