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A childhood mangled in a world of hard labor

A childhood mangled in a world of hard labor

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child.jpg

Chou Chantol is one of hundreds of thousands of children caught up in Cambodia's

work force. Their experiences often leave lifetime scars, emotional or physical.

In a fortnight which has seen children's rights pushed into the limelight - a children's

march through Phnom Penh, the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights

of the Child, and a series of seminars in Phnom Penh discussing child labor - Sarah

Stephens looks at the current status of working children in Cambodia.

THE ONLY TIME Chou Chantol's smiling face clouds over is when he describes the actual

moment that the brick-making machine tore off his arm.

"I was carrying pieces of clay to put in the processing machine," he says.

"One of my arms slipped into the machine's teeth and it grabbed me quickly."

The 13-year old winces as he remembers the moment. "My mother rushed to me and

pulled me out of the machine, but my arm was cut off."

That was two years ago, when Chantol was 11. Today he is a cheerful, smiling boy,

who stoically admits his future will be very hard because of the accident. "It's

really uncomfortable for me when I work, because I cannot carry the earth properly,"

he says.

On that day when Chantol lost his arm, around 653,000 other children across Cambodia

were working in brick factories, garment factories, agriculture, domestic work, construction

and family businesses. That's thirteen percent of the country's children.

A good proportion of those were working in hazardous environments - operating heavy

or dangerous machinery like Chantol, working at heights, underground or underwater,

working with poisonous materials, or slaving for the sex or drugs industry.

"We want to take children out of hazardous workplaces, and provide them with

alternatives. But I do not want to stop children from doing all work, as they are

often needed for supporting their family."

- Chuon Mom Thol

Up until now, there has been no specific legislation to protect working children.

There are laws banning child sex and child prostitution but they are seldom enforced.

Cambodian law states that children under 18 cannot partake in hazardous work, but

the wording is not clearly defined, and the law has suffered from poor implementation.

Now a new piece of legislation could bring much-needed help to those children, if

Cambodia chooses to ratify it. International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention

182 was created to combat "the worst forms of child labor."

"Child labor is a burning issue for Cambodia right now," said Joachim Grimsmann,

senior International Labor Standards Specialist, who gave keynote speeches at a series

of ILO seminars on child labor in Phnom Penh this month. "Convention 182 calls

for the immediate elimination of the worst forms of child labor, which can harm health,

safety, or morals of young persons."

Surprisingly, Cambodia is actually only the second country in Asia to have ratified

all seven of the ILO's core conventions, which spell out requirements for basic labor

standards. But Convention 182 is different in that its emphasis is on immediate action

- something which cases like Chantol's show is a priority.

"All member states have to produce effective and immediate measures to eliminate

the worst forms," said Grimsmann. "The convention was only created in June

this year, and so far we have just one signatory, the Seychelles."

If child labor activists in Phnom Penh have their way, Cambodia will not be far behind.

At the series of ILO seminars held mid-November, MPs, NGOs, jurists, trade unionists,

and even media gathered together to discuss how best to implement an early ratification

of Convention 182. They agreed almost unanimously that the convention was essential

for Cambodia's development.

"I am sure we will sign the convention," said Chuon Mom Thol, president

of the Cambodian Union Federation. The CUF is currently carrying out a child labor

project concentrated on a selection of Phnom Penh's 600 brick factories. "The

Minister of Labor himself told me it was very likely."

"We want to take children out of hazardous workplaces, and provide them with

alternatives," he continued.

"But I do not want to stop children from doing all work, as they are often needed

for supporting their family."

Indeed, in a recent survey carried out by ILO-IPEC in Cambodia, many working children

were actually vital to their family's income, and most were forced to work through

sheer poverty. Last year's national census results also provide a clue as to why

such large numbers of children are at work - nearly 27% of households nationally

are headed by women; with only one breadwinner in the family there is little choice

but to send the children out to work as well.

In Chantol's family, the story is similar. They live below the poverty level. With

eight children to feed, extra help is needed just to make enough money to eat, concedes

Chantol's father, Iem. His other children still work making bricks, although the

family now works at a different kiln.

"We moved factories after my son lost his arm, but I am so worried that this

may happen to another of my children," he said.

Iem has every reason to worry. The machine which destroyed Chantol's arm was replaced

by a new machine - but one which was exactly the same model, with no safety

cover or emergency stopping mechanism. On the day the Post visited the factory, workers

were busy pushing clay into the grinding claws of the machine, in exactly the same

way Chantol was two years ago.

With only 34 labor inspectors in a city with 20,000 businesses, dangerous machinery

or unsafe working conditions are the rule rather than the exception.

The owner of the factory where Chantol worked said she would like to replace the

mechanisms with a safer device, but that she "did not have the possibility to

change systems."

But according to Mom Thol, she may soon have no choice.

"We are working on a collective agreement which we hope will be signed on December

24, which will require all factory owners to provide safety covers for their machines,"

he said.

"If they don't they can be fined up to $1,500, and may suffer criminal penalties

as well."

Of course, all this comes a little too late to help Chantol. But despite his own

personal tragedy, he sees some hope for the future. This term, he is beginning school

for the first time ("when I worked at the brick factory I had no time to go

to school"), and he is also featured on a new poster campaigning for the abolition

of child labor, which is being sent to every factory in Phnom Penh.

Even the highest levels of government realize they need to be seen to be doing something

about the issue.

The Prime Minister addressed a group of children's rights marchers in Phnom Penh

17 November, and assured them that he was aware of the problems facing Cambodia's

youth, including violence, trafficking, and forced child labor.

"I and members of the government ... are considering how to protect you and

ban these inhumane acts," he said.

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