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The hazards of youth

A young boy loads unfired bricks into a kiln in Kandal’s Prek Anhchanh village
A young boy loads unfired bricks into a kiln in Kandal’s Prek Anhchanh village. Hong Menea

The hazards of youth

About 10 per cent of Cambodian children aged between five and 17 are “child labourers” – undertaking work deemed unsuitable or illegal for them – while almost 240,000 children are working in hazardous conditions, a report released yesterday says.

The Cambodia Child Labour 2012 report, compiled by the National Institute of Statistics (NIS), the Ministry of Planning and the International Labour Organisation, says the Kingdom has about 429,000 child labourers, 383,000 of whom live in rural areas.

According to the report, half of the total number of child labourers had either dropped out of school or never attended in the first place.

About 236,000 of those children were undertaking hazardous work, the majority of them in rural areas, it adds.

“Five of every nine child labourers were engaged in hazardous labour.”

Speaking at the launch of the report yesterday, Bijoy Raychaudhuri, project director for an ILO child labour elimination program, said the study was the first of its kind in Cambodia since 2001.

“One thing we find … Cambodia being a rural economy, most of the child labour is in the agricultural sector and working in informal business,” he said.

The total number of children aged five to 17 considered to be “working children” is 750,000 out of a nationwide population of about four million children in the age group.

And while many of them undertook employment that was permissible under the law, Raychaudhuri said, “about 57 per cent of the working children are in child labour that should be eliminated”.

“This is one clear message that this report brings out,” he said.

The definition of “child labour” used by the report’s authors is broad. If a child aged 5 to 11 engages in just one hour of “economic activity” in one week, she or he is considered a child labourer. Children aged 12 to 14 must work more than 12 hours per week or any amount of time in hazardous conditions to fit the category. And children aged 15 to 17 – who are legally allowed to undertake non-hazardous work – are considered child labourers if they work more than 48 hours in one week or work at all in hazardous conditions.

By definition, hazardous tasks can include working at a construction site or factory, logging, operating heavy machinery and brick-making.

Despite perceptions that young children were being widely exploited, Raychaudhuri said, most of the “child labourers” are aged 12 to 17.

“So five to 11, the child population is very limited.”

The child labour report was released simultaneously yesterday with the Cambodia Labour Force 2012 report.

In that report, it was revealed that the working-age population – people aged 15 and over – had increased to 10.7 million in 2012, up 1.9 million people from 2008. Sixty-nine per cent of those of working age are part of the labour force. Of that figure, only 2.7 per cent are unemployed.

Data in both reports was collected by surveying almost 10,000 households in every province.

Those conducting the surveys, however, did not have access to children who live at workplaces or those who have been exploited for sex- or drug-trafficking purposes.

“Children living outside the household are not captured by this survey.… That’s a different survey,” Raychaudhuri said.

Asked whether responses garnered from households reflected the true nature of how those within them were affected by child labour, he added that the survey assumed that parents answering questions knew how many hours per week their children worked.

“It could be that if they know it is illegal, they would not give the right answer. It is possible.”

In a statement, Maurizio Bussi, officer-in-charge of the ILO’s Cambodia office, said regular follow-up surveys were essential to working towards ending child labour in the country.

Heang Kanol, deputy director-general of the National Institute of Statistics at the Ministry of Planning, did not say at the launch how frequently the surveys would be repeated.

In the child labour report’s foreword, Minister of Planning Chhay Than said he expected the report would be useful to “planners and policy-makers”.

“Eliminating child labour in Cambodia is one of the most urgent challenges of the government,” he says.

Despite some high-profile issues with underage workers in factories, incidents of child labour in garment factories are in the minority, the report says.

“That’s been the case for the past 10 years,” Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said yesterday.

Underage workers using fake identification to gain work, however, remained an issue. “But we have been advocating … to help factories identify that.”

As for agricultural workers and construction workers in rural areas, Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at Community Legal Education Centre, said it was difficult to know the full extent of the child labour problem.

“We don’t have concrete reports [on rural areas]. It’s a concern.”

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