T HE release of an NGO report on child labor, just after Cambodia officially applied
for GSP status from the United States, saw two Ministers leap to the defense of labor
conditions in the Kingdom.
Suy Sem, the Minister of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans' Affairs, categorically
declared that there are "no factories" using child labor in Cambodia.
Asked about brick factories - the best-known example of children working in factories
- Sem said that they were not factories, but "cooperatives".
"The work involves the whole family, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.
It's [not the] employers who hire the children to work."
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh expressed a similar view, saying that brick factory
children were "sometimes just hanging around their mother, helping her voluntarily.
"The kids are helping their mothers, or maybe a 15 or 16-year-old is trying
to find a job to make a living. Do you say 'No, go and be beggar in the street instead?'
"This is a transitional, temporary situation. It's better to provide jobs for
them than let them do other things, become thieves or robbers."
Both Ministers acknowledged the use of children in "informal" employment
- working with their parents or siblings to support the family livlihood - but said
that was to be expected in any poor country.
Their ire was raised by the report Child Labor in Cambodia, prepared by the Asian-American
Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and the human rights group Licadho.
The Ministry of Commerce, which last month submitted an application to the US for
Cambodia to be granted Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) ranking, alleged that
the report was designed to stop GSP being granted.
Prasidh accused AAFLI - which has worked closely with the government on advising
on a new labor law which may clear the way for GSP - of changing its position.
"This kind of report is detrimental to GSP eligibility for Cambodia. There is
no need to report this just because you are paid to do this job.
"You have to think of the national interests. It is at this time that Cambodia
has a chance at obtaining GSP. This is very important. We want GSP so we can improve
the situation, to foster a prosperous economic environment here."
The report's researchers interviewed 245 working children in 14 occupations in Phnom
Penh and five provinces.
The report concludes that children's rights and current child labor regulations are
not being adequately enforced, and argues that the problem is only going to worsen
with economic development.
The report acknowledges that most working children do not work for wages, nor do
they work in the industrial sector, but predicts a gradual transfer of the child
workforce to commerical enterprises.
"As Cambodia's economy grows, the use of child labor is likely to escalate.
Because most Cambodian children are destitute and poor, they are a cheap and easy
source of labor for Cambodia and foreign investors to exploit."
But the researchers did identify children working across a range of occupations in
industries, including brick and cement factories, rubber plantations and construction
sites, as "a cheap and exploitable resource".
In some cases, children were working alongside their parents, a reflection of "substandard
wages" which meant the parents could not earn enough themselves to look after
Children were found working in 30 of 67 brick factories in Kandal province, mostly
involved with the loading of bricks onto trucks. The children, some as young as eight
or nine, reported frequent injuries from falling bricks.
Most of the children didn't know their earnings, since their wages was paid to their
parents or guardians. More than half of the 55 children interviewed who worked in
brick factories said their families didn't earn enough, so they borrowed money from
Some of the worst horror stories cited in the report involve salt fields in Kampot,
where families are paid by the fields' owners to collect salt under an arrangement
similar to sharecropping.
Seven children aged 12-15 were interviewed, including one, aged 14, who had worked
the fields for five years. Another child reported working so hard that he once coughed
up blood, while another - with an open sore on his foot, aggravated by the salt -
was in tears, along with his mother.
Children were also found working in the service industry, and the "informal
sector" - as tour guides, street vendors and stone-crushers - and as domestic
servants. Others included a 15-year soldier who was found in Siem Reap, and a 15-year-old
girl who had been a prostitute since she was 12.
The report's main recommendation is for a joint government/NGO taskforce on child
labor, but it lays ultimate reponsiblity for eliminating child labor with the government.
"Child labor laws exist in Cambodia today, and must be enforced," says
the report, urging the government to "uphold and strengthen existing policies
and laws" and "provide access to school and services."
A Nov 1 statement issued by the Ministry of Commerce complained that the report "jumped
to the conclusion" that because of "some cases" of child labor, Cambodia
should be denied GSP.
In fact, GSP is not mentioned in the report. But Cham Prasidh, in a interview, reaffirmed
his view that AAFLI - after earlier promoting GSP for Cambodia - was now opposing
Prasidh showed the Post a copy of a Oct 30 issue of the Mekong Digest, a weekly publication
of the International Center in Washington DC. The issue quoted AAFLI's Cambodia representative,
Bama Athreya, as saying that because of alleged incidents of child labor, forced
labor and poor working conditions, Cambodia did not meet the labor standards required
by GSP status.
Athreya, for her part, denied making any such statement.
But she confirmed that the AFL-CIO - the US' largest trade union, with which AAFLI
is affiliated - was currently preparing a submission to the US government on Cambodia's
elibibility for GSP.
The AFL-CIO, in a press release, said that it was "monitoring the situation
very carefully to determine whether the Government of Cambodia has acted to comply
with international worker rights standards."
In apparent support for Cambodia's hotly-contested new draft law, the statement concluded
that: "The AFL-CIO will not be in a position to recommend the award of GSP benefits
to Cambodia until a labor law that meets international standards is passed by the
Athreya said the child labor report was "not about some trade agenda, it's about
trying to get programs for helping children."
Licadho, in a press statement, reiterated that the report had not mentioned GSP,
and that the human rights NGO had expressed no opinion about GSP for Cambodia.
"Licadho refuses to be made a scapegoat for any decisions about GSP, which are
the remit of the US government alone..." said the report, adding that it would
be surprised if NGO reports had any influence in such matters.