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Underage, overworked

Underage, overworked
A young worker at Ying Dong Shoes factory walks outside the compound’s walls in the capital’s Kantouk commune on Monday. The factory is facing allegations of underage labour, with claims that girls as young as 13 have been knowingly hired. Editor’s note: subject’s face has been blurred to her protect identity. Photo by Kara Fox

Child labour is being used at a footwear factory owned by the same Taiwan-based company as Wing Star Shoes – where two workers were killed in a ceiling collapse this month – numerous employees have told the Post.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a number of workers at Ying Dong Shoes in Phnom Penh told the Post this week that the company was employing 13-year-olds.

Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said yesterday that the factory, Wing Star and New Star Shoes in Preah Sihanouk province, are owned by the same company, while Japan-based footwear company Asics has confirmed that it buys from all three.

One worker at Ying Dong said girls as young as 13 were employed at the factory in Por Sen Chey district’s Kantouk commune, despite bosses firing more than 100 underage workers prior to Khmer New Year.

“The company removed about 100 workers in March or April because they were too young to work here,” she said. “Some were just 13 or 14, but they had used other people’s names.”

Another Ying Dong worker corroborated this, adding that some girls had been fired only to return under fake names.

“If you ask them, they will not tell you the truth – but they are too young to work,” she said.

One worker who was happy to reveal her age but not her name told the Post she was 14 and used her sister’s identity to work at Ying Dong.

“I don’t have ID, so I couldn’t work here. I [tell them] I’m 19,” she said, adding others were doing the same.

A former Ying Dong employee said the issue is not a new one at the factory – in 2010, she worked alongside 13- and 14-year-olds.

“Ying Dong needed workers, so they didn’t have strict rules to recruit workers. They allowed them to work, even though they didn’t have proper documents,” she said.

Under the Cambodian Labour Law, footwear and garment factories can employ anyone as young as 15 but must provide modified duties to those under 18.

Many factories – including Ying Dong – claim to employ only those aged 18 or over.

Kim Dany, 15, was one of two workers crushed to death when a storage level collapsed at Wing Star in Kampong Speu province on May 16. Her family told the Post she had used a fake name – Sim Srey Touch – and claimed that she was 22 to gain work.

Joel Preston, a consultant with Community Legal Education Center, said his organisation had found similar cases of underage labour at the third factory, New Star, in Preah Sihanouk’s Mittapheap district.

Workers as young as 13 had been detected and CLEC estimated that more than 1,000 were under 18.

“It was really difficult speaking with workers about it . . . people are reluctant to talk about [underage labour],” he said.

CLEC’s investigation of New Star had also found that in some cases workers had been fired if they worked overtime – something workers under 18 are not allowed to do.

Fake documents

GMAC’s Loo said there were certainly problems at Ying Dong and his organisation “in no way supports under-age labour”.

“[Ying Dong] have some issues with underage workers. They need to recheck records,” he said.

But he wasn’t aware of any issues at New Star.

“Most of New Star’s workers have been there for donkey’s years. Turnover is low,” he said.

Loo answered “yes” to a question about whether all three factories were in the hands of the same owner in Taiwan, but said he could not provide more details. All factories willingly using underage labour should be punished, he said, but added that workers often used fake documents to trick factory managers into hiring them.

“I think when underage workers are discovered, it’s important to know whether they are impersonating,” Loo said. “There is often no reasonable way to ascertain a worker’s age other than by going to their village.”

Ying Dong bosses declined to meet with reporters at the factory to respond to allegations they used child labour.

A factory floor supervisor at Ying Dong contacted yesterday refused to give his name or comment on ownership, but denied – at first – that the factory used child labour.

“No, we don’t have any underage workers,” he said. “You have to be 18 before you can work, and we stick to the rules.”

When asked about workers using fake identification, he changed his tune.

“The workers are very troublesome. Sometimes they use fake IDs. Actually, you can’t say that we don’t have underage workers – we might have, but it’s very difficult for us to know for sure.”

In response to a statutory rape case that raised questions about child workers in Ying Dong, Lei Shi Ken, an administration official, told the Post in January last year that it only employed workers “that are 18 and above”. Each employee, Shi Ken added, needed a birth certificate and identification card to work there.

Dave Welsh, American Center for International Solidarity country manager, said he was aware of issues at Ying Dong, adding that by law, anyone aged 15 to 18 could not carry out “hazardous” work – something he said wasn’t clearly defined.

“But with heavy machinery in factories, many jobs could be classified as hazardous,” he said. “Besides, in this factory [Ying Dong], we’re not talking about 15, we’re talking younger than that.”

Welsh said Asics had a responsibility to respond to the allegations. “It’s horrendous from a moral point of view – and a PR point of view. Brands can claim that they are not aware, but that means they are either duplicitous or genuinely not aware,” he said, adding that neither looked good for them.

Complicated issue

A spokeswoman for Asics confirmed yesterday that the company sources from all three factories.

“Yes, we do [buy from New Star and Ying Dong],” she said. She added, however, that Asics was aware of no issues with underage workers.

“They have done audits [at New Star]. The youngest worker is 18 years old. “They verify age [using] IDs, health certification, and, if the workers look particularly young, they also use police verification.”

The spokeswoman added that no child labour issues “that we are aware of” at Ying Dong had come to their attention.

“[We] work on international standards . . . and take allegations of child labour very seriously . . . but there are limitations. [Child labour] is pretty difficult to detect. The fact is there will be people who falsify documents to get a job. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.”

The spokeswoman said Asics regularly assesses its factories in three ways: independently; by using accredited third parties; and through international NGO the Fair Labor Association.

Preston, from CLEC, agreed that the issue remained “complicated”.

“You want people to be able to work, but they need to be allowed to go to school,” he said. “And you need it to be something that doesn’t affect their health. So you need someone to follow up [on factory conditions].”

Although underage labour was not as overt as it used to be, it remained a widespread problem, Welsh said.

“It’s certainly unfair to say it is rife in the sense of extreme child labour, but it’s certainly a huge problem with 15- to 18-year-olds working in violation of the Labour Law,” he said.

“You would be hard-pressed finding ILO inspections where it has been completely eradicated.”

Representatives of New Star and Wing Star could not be reached.

Veng Heang, director of the Ministry of Labour’s child labour department, referred questions to another official who could not be reached.

Additional reporting by Danson Cheong



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