C AMBODIA's working children are now often able to labor alongside their families
to keep food on the table, but that will change within four years, labor experts
say, as an increasingly competitive job market forces children and adults into the
To prevent Cambodia's unskilled children from becoming factory fodder or being absorbed
into the prostitution industry, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the
Cambodian government signed an agreement in Phnom Penh last week aimed at preventing
The agreement, signed by Suy Sem, the State Secretary of Social Affairs and Labor,
and Daniel Duysens, ILO's regional director, will provide initial funds of $50,000
for the ministry to study the problems of working children and develop skills training.
"Although the exploitation of children in Cambodia is not as severe as in other
countries we want to act now because prevention is better than cure," Suy Sem
said after the signing ceremony.
Duysens also said that the children working in factories is not a major problem because
industry is underdeveloped and adult labor is so cheap "there is no incentive
to employ children here."
"But with Cambodia's already unemployed work force likely to expand by 33 percent
from one and a half million to six million by the end of the decade unemployment
will hit rural children hard," the ILO Director said.
"It is inevitable in Cambodia where the rural population is expanding so rapidly
that young people will move to urban centers without skills and will be vulnerable
to exploitative labor markets like prostitution," said Duysens.
While child advocates and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor say the stereotypical
image of children slaving in hard labor industries is not yet applicable in Cambodia,
all admit that no one is sure how many children are working, how hard and for how
ILO appointed advisor to the Ministry Marie-France Botte has produced an initial
report on Cambodia's young laborers in agriculture, wood gathering, mining and prostitution
Botte's report shows that while factories in Phnom Penh are not employing children,
small groups of children are working in factories and mines in rural areas.
Her report looked at several children's work sites including salt farms on the road
to Kep where an estimated one third of the full time workers are children, with 82
percent never having attended school.
A brick factory in the village of Lou Trolopbek district in Kampot employs another
70 children who are employed mainly with their parents working from 7 am to 5 pm
with a 30-minute break.
Another 90 children, 70 percent of whom are under 15, are employed full time in a
Ratanakkiri gem mine where Botte says "children like adults work by candle light
in the tunnels 10 meters deep for periods of up to 60-90 minutes."
Botte draws on LICHADO's investigation of the children who work Phnom Penh's garbage
dump where 43 percent of the 200 full time pickers are children.
"Health conditions are extremely precarious and the infant mortality rate is
extremely high especially in the wood cutting and garbage collection and treatment
sectors," she reports.
Child pickers at the garbage dump, while disappointed they had not found gold or
gems amongst the rubbish, said only the need to eat drove them to work and that no
one was forcing them to work the dump.
ILO said Cambodia's child workers, like the garbage pickers were working mainly to
sustain themselves and families rather than being forced into industry by profiteers.
One major exception to this was among Cambodia's child sex workers who make up almost
35 percent of Cambodia's prostitution industry and who, according to Botte, are part
of a forced child labor industry where a "child prostitution net work was organized
with children coming from Vietnam and Saigon in particular."
ILO's regional director said Cambodia could learn from neighboring Thailand where
he said marginalization of particularly ethnic minorities had resulted in massive
child prostitution problems.
The ILO project agreed to last week will start in four provinces including Ratanakkiri
where the life style of the minority hill tribes is now threatened by massive logging
ILO estimates that about 15,000 children from ethnic minorities are employed in agricultural
work due to lack of schools and teachers in the province.
Duysens said the project should be seen" as a first step" and once the
Ministry knew how it wanted to proceed it could tap into a $ 50 million ILO initiative
to combat child labor which was already operating in 12 countries.
"Attacking child labor is about tackling poverty," Duysens said. "Especially
in Cambodia where children working in difficult circumstances are often with their
families and it's a problem of poor labor conditions generally."