Chea Pyden, VCAO's executive director.
A group of girls huddles in a small hairdressing studio on the outskirts of Tuol
Kork, listening attentively as their teacher tells them how to fix each others' hair
in the latest styles. Soon they will head home, and disappear behind the doors of
the capital's grand mansions and lavish houses.
But these girls are not the daughters' of Phnom Penh's wealthy elite. Instead they
will return to an exhausting day of cleaning, cooking and household chores. If they
are late they may suffer abuse, often verbal, sometimes physical.
They are child domestic workers who come from the provinces in the hope of finding
a better life. Instead many end up working in slave-like conditions for the wealthy.
Chea Pyden, executive director of local NGO Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization
(VCAO), estimates there are up to 4,000 child domestic workers in the city. Some
are as young as 10, most earn less then $10 a month, and many suffer daily abuse
at the hands of their employers.
"They work very hard for the house owners, with only a little bit of food,"
says Pyden. "They get up around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. or midnight.
They take care of the baby, do the cleaning, washing and cooking. Some suffer violence
and sexual abuse."
They typically come from poor rural backgrounds, and send home the meager sums they
earn to pay for their siblings' schooling. For most child domestic workers, the prospects
of a proper education and a better life are far from their grasp.
The girls at the hairdressing studio are attending VCAO's vocational training program.
There they learn practical skills such as hairdressing, as well as cooking, sewing,
literacy, English and child rights.
Fifteen-year-old Sophorn is one of those picking up new skills. Poverty drove her
to Phnom Penh three years ago, and she has worked in the same house since then.
"My mother did not have enough food to eat and owed people money," says
Sophorn. "My father died, and I have six brothers and sisters."
Her life in the city requires a4 a.m. start. The chores include cleaning, cooking,
and doing the laundry. She finishes at 9 p.m. and earns a mere $7 a month, which
she sends home to herfamily.
"Living in the owner's homeis very difficult and sad," she says. "I
have seen my family only once."
Simple mistakes used to earn her a beating, she says, and verbal abuse is still common.
Despite the new skills she is learning at VCAO's course, Sophorn holds little hope
of escaping her life as a domestic servant.
"I might not be able to find a job even if the owner lets me out," she
says. "But if I had money and the training I would like to become a hairdresser."
Child domestic workers at the VCAO training program in Tuol Kork.
Escaping the drudgery of life as a domestic worker is always on the mind of 16-year-old
Neary, who came to Phnom Penh two years ago. Her mother is dead, and she has not
seen the rest of her family since she left.
But Neary is more hopeful than Sophorn that the vocational training will one day
allow her to leave domestic work behind.
"I can't work for the owner forever," she says. "I need my own future,
my own life."
VCAO's Pyden says the government and the public are not doing enough to combat this
hidden form of child labor. Society, he says, views it as a tradition, ingrained
in culture, and best kept behind closed doors.
"It is an invisible form," says Pyden. "The people outside don't know
what is going on. Sometimes the children have big problems, but NGOs and the local
authorities just don't know."
The child rights coordinator at Licadho, a local human rights NGO that provides legal
assistance to child domestic workers, says the problem has intensified in recent
years. In line with the NGO's practice, his name has not been used.
"It is a real problem that has been practiced for hundreds of years," he
says. "The problem has increased since 1990 because of the growth of the middle
class and the opening of the free
"The middle class have the means to recruit [children] to do work they don't
want to. They think children are respectful and don't complain, and can be underpaid."
The International Labor Organization's International Program on the Elimination of
Child Labor (ILO/IPEC) funds VCAO's vocational training scheme. Mar Sophea, national
program manager for ILO/IPEC, says the group is also working on projects to raise
"The issue has never been brought up by the government or the public,"
says Sophea. "We have to go through many processes. First of all we have to
bring the issue to the public, then we will think about policy."
Sophea says parents often send their daughters to Phnom Penh to work in garment factories,
but there simply are not enough jobs for everyone. The girls often end up working
as domestic servants.
"Most of [the parents] do not understand how difficult if is for the children
when they end up in Phnom Penh," says Sophea. "We need to let the parents
know. Step by step we will mobilize our
message to others."
To that end a series of quizzes, comedies and dramas about child domestic workers
will be shown on television this month. With a cast of famous faces, members of government,
and children from 150 schools in the city, the broadcasts will raise questions such
as, 'Who is a child domestic worker?', 'What can you do to help?', and 'What is the
role of the employer?'
Em Chanmakara, chairperson of the Children's Committee, which will organize the TV
shows with the assistance of ILO/IPEC, hopes this will change the attitudes of household
"On the TV program we share the experiences and problems of the child domestic
workers to owners," says Em Chanmakara. "[We want to] eliminate violence
towards child domestic workers."
Chanmakara also hopes the program will push the government to ratify ILO Convention
182, which addresses the issue of child domestic workers. Without greater assistance
from government, sector professionals say they face an uphill struggle to educate
the public and prosecute those who inflict violence on the children.
Sophea at ILO/IPEC says the sole article in the Labor Law that addresses child domestic
workers only defines them, but gives no guidelines on what their rights are.
But there are indications of a shift in government interest. The Ministry of Social
Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSALVY) recently committed
itself to working with ILO/IPEC on the issue.
Sophea says that this is encouraging, but feels more practical help is required.
To effect real change, the government will need to regard the issue as a high priority.
Keo Sieney, head of the government's child labor group, insists MoSALVY does consider
the issue important.
"We need to spend more time gathering information from the population,"
says Sieney. "I think that [new law will be passed] soon after this year because
it has been set up as a priority."
But it is clear, observers say, that it will take more than legal statutes to resolve
the issue of child domestic workers. At the root of the problem is the extreme poverty
in rural areas. That, coupled with the lack of education and opportunities, forces
families to send their children to Phnom Penh to earn money.
ILO/IPEC's Sophea says if the children from rural families do not get educated, they
will suffer the same fate as their parents.
"Human resources development is not easy," he says. "If the government
does not invest efficiently and effectively in education, then later on it will become
an ill and incompetent labor force, and will never escape the poverty cycle."
Editor's note: the names of the domestic workers have been changed.
Slow arm of the law
For Licadho, the slow progress of the law is a barrier to their work.
"We often fail to prosecute the perpetrators because we have a problem of awareness
among law enforcement and the public," says the NGO's child rights coordinator.
He gives the example of a recent case which the NGO took to court, in which two child
domestic workers, aged 14 and 16, were systematically abused by their employers.
"Every time [the employers] were not happy with the work they received a beating,"
he says. "Most beatings included banging the girls' heads against the wall and
slapping them. They also used a water pipe to beat them.
"Almost on a daily basis they were tortured by the employers. One day the younger
girl could not stop the baby crying and she was beaten very badly. She was sad and
upset, so she attempted to hang herself."
The two girls managed to escape the household with the NGO's help and decided to
press charges, despite pressure from MoSALVY to let the matter drop.
"The police did not want [us] to complain," he says, "but we reported
it to [MoSALVY]. There were a lot of difficulties because they did not want to take
the case to the court."
Licadho is currently awaiting the outcome of the investigation.
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