Hoeun Danei stays busy seven days a week. From 7am to 4pm she cuts sugarcane, lumping the six-foot-long cut stalks into bundles that are piled until they reach far past the tops of the trucks that deliver them to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company – ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s shiny new sugar refinery in Kampong Speu province’s Omlaing commune.
Danei says she works at least five days a week, but still has dreams of leaving the fields for the relative comfort of a garment factory. Though she has been cutting cane for nearly two years, she’s only 12 years old.
“I work hard, but I am happy in the evening when I get the money,” she said.
However, even working a full day with her mother, who is eight months pregnant, the pair never earns more than three dollars, sometimes taking home no more than 4,500 riel (about $1.10).
“I want to study, but I need the money to support my mum. But when I am grown up, I will not work in this sugarcane field, because it is a very hard job, and hot,” she went on.
Unsurprisingly to some, Danei is not alone. Two trips to Omlaing and interviews with multiple families – some of which send as many as five underage children to work in the fields every day – revealed that child labour is more rule than exception on Yong Phat’s sprawling 19,000-hectare sugar plantation.
Many of the children who work in the fields are determined to continue their studies. Danei goes to school for two days on some weeks, though on others she works all week long. But even without her job, access to education would be limited.
Though the door to village schools is always open – it stands totally ajar, dangling askew from one broken hinge – the young workers say that classes are rarely convened.
Sok Mey, 13, says he studies for half a day on the two or three days a week when school is in session. The rest of the time, Mey – who looks closer to 10 than 13 – trims the leaves from the still-standing sugarcane using a sickle mounted on a bamboo pole that’s taller than he is.
Tit Chanthy, a two-year veteran of the fields, now 13, studies when he can, but his teacher is often absent, leaving him at a disadvantage, he said.
“I really want to study, but I have no good opportunities like other children in the city,” he said.
Chanthy’s mother, Choeung Yan, said that all of her five children, from 15 down to 7 years old, work in the cane fields, together sometimes earning as much as $7.50 a day.
“If I don’t allow them to work there, how can I survive, because I have no farmland? The company took over my farmland already,” she said.
Omlaing was the site of a years-long land dispute that saw nearly 100 demonstrations, and court cases levelled at almost 30 complainants. Before the plantation came, villagers say, residents were able to live comfortably off of their family farms, earning extra money from side jobs when needed.
With the farmland gone, they say, working in the cane fields is the only option.
Sroun Phally, 46, said that she was only given about $12.50 to relocate after losing her land. Now, even with her two sons, her daughter and her husband working in the sugarcane fields, her family still lives hand to mouth.
“If I had farmland as before, I would not worry much, and all my kids would have a chance to go to school” like they did before the relocation, she said. “I pity my kids.”
The children’s former teacher, Chhuon Chon, said that before the plantation came, attendance at school was brisk and regular. However, he added, when a court case stemming from his refusal to give up his land began to occupy all of his time, he was forced to quit the position.
The new teacher, he went on, is paid by the company but lives far away.
“When I heard that [the children] did not go to school every day, I really pitied them,” he said. “I really had no idea what to say when I heard that news,” he added.
Others who used to resist the concession are now contractors for it.
One such person is former activist You Tho. Thos was once jailed for his opposition to the company. Now he is one of the labour contractors paid by the company to secure workers for the fields.
“Yes, we have some younger boys and girls working in the sugarcane field, but they come to work when it’s a school holiday,” Tho said. “We don’t want them to work, but their parents said OK. So it’s up to them.”
It is contractors like Tho who officially hire the plantation’s labourers, workers said, a practice that keeps the children off of Phnom Penh Sugar Company’s books.
“That is not compliant to the law at all, and that is a big failure of the government of Cambodia,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center.
Tola maintains that, under the law, parent companies are still liable for their labourers, despite the presence of contractors and subcontractors.
“From a distance, you can see that Ly Yong Phat is not responsible for those workers, because those workers are employed by another company. But in fact, those workers are working for Ly Yong Phat’s company,” he said. “Ly Yong Phat has to be responsible for those workers.”
Furthermore, Tola went on, a lack of access to education has far-ranging effects on development, especially in the field of human resources.
“Taking the land from the community and turning the farmers into labourers is not an effective strategy; the tycoon wins, but the poor lost,” he added.
According to Tola, the Cambodian labour law classifies youths 14 and under as child labourers, and forbids them from working jobs that are physically harmful or detrimental to their education.
Sugar plantations, said Eng Vuthy, a representative of the development NGO Equitable Cambodia, are both.
“It will seriously impact the children’s education,because this kind of work is very harmful for the children,” said Vuthy. “There are a lot of chemicals, and it is very hard work, and it is harmful not only to their education, but also to their health.”
Both Vuthy and Tola suggested alternative systems in which villagers keep their land, and sell their produce – in this case, sugar – to companies as independent suppliers.
However, the problem is endemic, said Ouk Sisovann, who worked for the International Labour Organization until last month, when the child labour project he managed was completed.
“In agriculture, child labour is very dominant, including [on] plantations,” he said. “Also, access to education is very limited, and there are also fewer employment opportunities for the adults, so all of this contributes to child labour.”
“When kids are not going to school, and they are working in a harmful environment, it harms their development, their physical development,” he said, ticking heavy machinery, pesticides and sun exposure off a list of hazards faced by child workers.
What’s more, he said, putting impoverished children to work “creates more poverty in the future”.
In late October, the European Parliament adopted a statement calling on the European Commission to end trade preferences for Cambodian agricultural products – such as sugar – that are linked to human rights abuses. Article 15(1) of the European Union’s 2011 tariff regulations cites violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as potential grounds for suspending favourable trade agreements.
Members of the European Parliament did not respond to requests for comments as of press time and repeated attempts to reach company representative Chheang Kimsuon were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, domestic repercussions for Ly Yong Phat were “very unlikely”, especially given the land’s original provenance, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“If you can get land illegally, you can use illegal labour or use people who are under the legal age,” he said. “You can get away with a lot of things.”
While it’s difficult to pin down the exact number of children working on Phnom Penh Sugar’s plantation, 14-year-old Hei Chantha said that her classmates were disappearing by the dozens.
Chantha, who wants to grow up to be a nurse, studies when she can, and earns just over 75 cents a day when she works in the sugarcane fields.
When asked what would happen if she too had to drop school, a very adult cloud of concern passed over her face.
“I will not drop my school,” she said.
To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]
Stuart White at [email protected]