Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Liberating 310,000 children

Liberating 310,000 children

Liberating 310,000 children

A child of around 6 years sells birdseed in front of the Royal Palace last month.

Cambodia might be within a decade of meeting the ILO’s goal of eradicating the worst forms of child labour by the year 2016.

Even among the poorest Cambodian families there is an unparalleled respect for education.

CAN Cambodia end child labour? That’s a question I have often asked myself during the past years. And my answer is: Yes, it can.

I would even set a target year – 2016 – for ending the worst forms of child labour here. The year 2016 is, of course, not one I have chosen at random. It is the year that the ILO has set for ending the worst forms of child labour globally. I believe we can achieve that goal in Cambodia.

In 1999, the ILO Convention No 182 on the Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL) was adopted unanimously by its member states. Cambodia ratified the Convention in 2005 and obliged itself thereby to take immediate measures to eliminate all the WFCL, such as children in slavery (including in trafficking and debt bondage), child prostitution, children in illicit activities (such as drug trafficking) and the use of children in hazardous work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a five-year National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The plan identified 16 sectors of hazardous child labour for immediate elimination. These sectors include children in domestic labour, quarrying, brick-making, portering, rubber plantations, salt production, fishing, scavenging and begging, etc.

In June this year, the government set 2016 as the target for ending the worst forms of child labour in the country.

The political will seems, then, to be present. Employers and workers organisations, as well as civil society organisations, have also begun to understand and participate in efforts against child labour. But considering the scale of the task, can the WFCL end by 2016? And if so, what resources would be needed to do so?

Some statistics may put matters in perspective. A survey conducted in 2001 showed that 1.5 million children were involved in some form of economic activity in Cambodia. Of these, 750,000 children were working as child labourers, and among them, 250,000 were in the worst forms of child labour.

Recently, the Rome-based Understanding Children’s Work (UCW) Project, a joint effort of the ILO, World Bank and UNICEF, updated this data.

Accounting for population increases since 2001, economic growth, poverty reduction, enhanced accessibility to schools and their improved quality, UCW estimated that presently there are around 310,000 Cambodia children in the WFCL.

To end the worst forms of child labour by 2016, then, involves first removing these 310,000 children from work and putting them in schools or in vocational skills training and retaining them there. At the same time, any fresh entry of children into the workforce must be prevented. The worst forms of child labour can end when these initiatives occur together.

Even for Cambodia, withdrawing and rehabilitating 310,000 children from work over an eight-year period is not an impossible task. In 2007-08, working with the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and with the support of the Ministry of Education, the ILO piloted a model for the elimination of the WFCL. In this pilot, the Royal government was able to remove (or prevent) over 18,000 children from hazardous work and rehabilitate them into schools. Removing 310,000 children from hazardous work over the next eight years through an expansion and scaling-up of the work done during the pilot is not an unrealistic target for Cambodia.

But how much would it cost the country to do this?

The UCW project also assessed the additional resources required to eliminate the WFCL in Cambodia by 2016. Based on the cost per child incurred in recent government initiatives for withdrawing and preventing child labour, UCW made this assessment for different economic growth scenarios. They found that even in the worst-case scenario of zero growth over the next eight years, the additional resources required to completely end the WFCL by 2016 would only be around US$90 million. This is roughly $12 million per year. With nearly $1 billion in foreign aid pouring into Cambodia each year, the country can easily afford this modest sum for its vulnerable children. Cambodia, then, can end child labour. But there are a few conditions.

Firstly, there is an immediate need for donors in Cambodia to bring child labour into their donor agenda and fund child labour concerns and programmes within the country.

Unfortunately, few donors, with the exception of the US and its department of labour have paid much attention to funding child labour issues in Cambodia thus far. Child labour does not seem to be on the agenda of most other donors here. Enhancing donor interest on child labour is, therefore, a pressing sine qua non to be addressed.

Secondly, donor support surely does not take away the primary responsibility of the government to itself support and fund child labour programmes.

Child labour is today as much an economic as a child-rights issue. There is a growing realisation within the government that sending children to work instead of to school is not merely of social, moral and ethical concern, but has immense economic implications as well. For each child dropping out from school, the country loses valuable future human resources. Considering the depletion in human capital that occurred during the Khmer Rouge, every bit of future human capital is sorely needed to sustain economic growth. Today, think tanks within the government, such as the Supreme National Economic Council and the Economic, Social and Cultural Observation Unit, have begun to look at the economic implications of child labour. It is expected that this would soon lead to budgetary support for programmes and projects aimed at ending child labour.

Thirdly, there is need for the employers and workers to participate fully in this effort. Civil society also needs to be fully onboard, for child labour cannot end until society appreciates the importance of this task.

Finally, note that even among the poorest Cambodian families, rural or urban, there is an unparalleled respect for education. And note their instinctive and innate impulse to send their sons and daughters to schools. With this native urge for learning, a committed government, increased donor and government funds and a sensitised society, Cambodia can end child labour.

But will it?
My forecast: Yes, it will. And it will end the worst forms of child labour by 2016.

Menacherry Paul Joseph is the chief technical adviser of the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO IPEC). He has been working in child labour for more than a decade. The views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ILO.


  • Malaysia MP accused of ‘influencing law’

    Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP) Larry Sng arrived in Siem Reap early on Wednesday, in what was slammed by one NGO as efforts by Kuala Lumpur to “influence Cambodian law”. The Malaysian Embassy in Phnom Penh requested on January 30 “cooperation from the Ministry of Foreign

  • Ministries begin measures to offset EU’s EBA decision

    In the wake of the EU’s controversial announcement this week that it has begun the withdrawal process for Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential agreement, government ministries and political analysts continued to share their reactions and economic mitigation plans in preparation for the

  • Emirates launches route connecting Phnom Penh, Bangkok

    Emirates will launch a daily service on June 1 linking Phnom Penh (PNH) and Bangkok (BKK). The service from Phnom Penh to Dubai, via Bangkok, will provide more flight options to passengers travelling between the capitals of Cambodia and Thailand. Travellers from the Southeast Asian nations

  • US Embassy urged to stop ‘disrespecting sovereignty’

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called on the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Saturday to respect the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations after it called former opposition leader Kem Sokha “an innocent man” – a move deemed to be “disrespecting Cambodia’s