Thousands of Cambodian children remain trapped in some of the world's most dangerous forms of child labour, according to reports released by the US government.
A pair of studies by the US Department of Labour's Bureau of International Labour Affairs (ILAB) cited the Kingdom as one of dozens of countries in which child labour is prevalent. These reports mined data from US government agencies, civil society organisations and other sources in order to assess labour conditions across the developing world.
In a report titled "2008 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labour", ILAB used data collected in 2003 and 2004 to estimate that 49 percent of Cambodians between the ages of 10 and 14, or around 900,000, were employed as child labourers of some kind.
That total has since risen, said Joseph Menacherry, the chief technical adviser at the International Labour Organisation's International Progamme on the Elimination of Child Labour, despite attention from government and civil society groups.
"This is a country with a booming population, especially a young population, so the overall numbers have come up," Menacherry said, noting that there are "300,000-plus" children working in especially dangerous sectors classified as the "worst forms" of child labour, up from 250,000 in 2002.
Particularly hazardous sectors in Cambodia include garbage-picking, fish-processing and salt production, the ILAB report said, adding that human trafficking remains a threat for children throughout the country.
The government, though, has been committed to reducing these figures, said Prak Chantha, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour. He pointed to last year's approval of the National Plan of Action (NPA) on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which sets a goal of eliminating them from Cambodia by 2016, as an example of action on this point.
"We have been working very hard with our international child-labour experts and have paid careful attention to this issue in order to meet our goal by 2016," Prak Chantha said.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh offered a similar assessment, saying in a statement released on Friday that the government "has made progress in this area" over the past few years, particularly with the approval of the NPA.
ILAB, too, made note of these developments, though not without caveats. The Ministry of Labour, it said, has never successfully prosecuted an employer for an underage worker violation, and anti-trafficking efforts, it argued, have been slowed by "corruption and an ineffectual judicial system".
But Menacherry said he believes the 2016 goal set forth in the NPA is realistic and can be achieved with donors' support. The government had saved almost 14,000 children from dangerous labour situations as of December 2008, according to ILAB, and Veng Heang, director of the Ministry of Labour's department of child labour, said last month that his ministry hopes to remove 12,000 more by the end of the year.
"There's an understanding now that if you send children to work and don't send them to school, it's going to impinge on the future development of the country," Menacherry said.