THE International Labor Organization (ILO) says ignorance of the legal minimum
age for employment in Cambodia's garment industry means many legally employed
young workers face unfair dismissal.
Mar Sophea, the ILO's National
Program Manager, said many employers believe 18 is the minimum legal age for
their workers, but under Cambodia labor law the minimum age is actually
" [The ILO] really wants employers to understand that according to
Cambodian labor law, children can be employed at the age of 15 unless the
working conditions are harmful to their physical development and their
morality," said Sophea.
If employers mistakenly refuse to hire workers
under 18 years old, there is a danger that desperately poor families will send
their daughters to work in the sex industry till they reach that age, he
Cambodia in 1993 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of
Children, which states that children have the right not to be exploited
The National Assembly passed a new Labor Code in 1997
which set the minimum age of employment at 15, but states that children aged 12
to 15 can perform light work that is "not hazardous to their health and
psychological development", and will not affect their attendance at school or
vocational training courses.
ILO Convention 138, which was ratified by
the Government in 1999, sets the minimum age for admission to employment at "the
age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, not less than 15
years old". Convention 138 further states that the minimum age allowed for light
work is 13. For work considered hazardous the minimum age is set at
Determining the real age of workers is a challenge for both employers
and labor inspectors.
The two most common forms of ID that employers
depend upon for information about their workers - ID cards issued by the
Ministry of Interior and Family Books issued by local authorities - can only be
obtained when a Cambodia citizen turns 18.
But for a bribe of only $20 or
$30, a worker under 18 years old can buy both forms of identification with the
name and age of their choice, said Sophea.
He warns that unless MoSA
clarifies minimum-age regulations to the industry, 15-to-17-year-old workers
will continue to use fake IDs and might be placed in dangerous working
conditions within the factories.
Complicating the situation are the
policies of buyers, which are not in line with Government laws, or international
labor standards, said Sophea.
The US-based company Nike Incorporated,
which has clothing produced at a number of factories in Cambodia, will not
contract work to factories that employ workers below the age of 18 to produce
footwear, and below 16 to produce apparel.
The code-of-vendor conduct for
the American clothing company Gap Incorporated states that the minimum age of
employees at factories where they have their clothes manufactured is 14. In
countries where the minimum age is higher, their manufacturing partners must
meet the legal age requirement.
Roger Tan, Secretary-General of the
Garment Manufacturers' Association of Cambodia, said ignorance of the law is not
the issue: manufacturers have a clear understanding of legal age
"Officially it is 15, but our factories would rather have
18-year-olds because many American and European buyers' codes of conduct say 18
"There are so many workers around Cambodia, we do not need the
13, 14, or 15-year-olds - there's no special reason to [hire them]," said Tan.
"It doesn't mean if you're younger, you're cheaper. There's a surplus of workers
to choose from so why should we risk going against Government or buyer
Though it has come to the manufacturers' attention that
simply firing all legal workers between the ages of 15 and 17 might not be the
answer, Tan doubts that the industry will benefit from using workers in that age
bracket if they must be given shorter working hours, or if the manufacturers are
forced to subsidize their continuing education.
Tan said determining the
age of many Cambodian workers is difficult because of poor records and fake ID
papers. "Even some workers don't know how old they are."
He said that
because international trade and human rights are both important factors for
Cambodia to take into consideration, it would be useful if the Government
performed a census and issued everyone with proper IDs.
Acting Director of MoSA's Labor Inspection Department, agrees that factory
owners are not confused about the minimum age requirement; the owners simply
don't want to hire 15-to-17-year-olds because of the regulations that must be
abided by if they hire workers under 18.
Apart from some vague guidelines
about what those regulations might be, the Government has yet to provide
employers the legal working conditions for 15-to-17-year-old
Chanthy said MoSA is developing these regulations now, and will
soon submit a Prakas to an interministerial Labor Advisory Committee.
said labor activists need to negotiate with the employers to rehire workers
between the ages of 15 and 18 so that at least they could work part time and
still have the opportunity to attend school.
Chea Vichea, President of
the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), said the
union is actively opposing the use of underage workers in the garment
Though the legal minimum age to work is 15, Vichea said factory
managers do not want to hire workers at that age. "If the factories hire a
15-year-old they have to pay that worker to go the school, and give them short
He said because the factories profit less from workers
less than 18 years old they simply don't hire them unless the young workers have
fake identification which allows factory management to pretend they do not have
to abide by the laws governing the use of labor between the ages of 15 and
Though the FTUWKC is attempting to defend the rights of the children,
not all appreciate the union's efforts. "Some workers are angry with me because
we cause some workers below the age of 15 to lose their jobs, Vichea said."