This year, for the first time, Cambodia will join the international community in
observing the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12.
Nguon Vannak, 13, front left, and Moff Leab, 12, right, with other young workers in a Kampong Cham rubber plantation.
It's a small but symbolic breakthrough that may bring Cambodia a step closer to ratifying
the 1999 Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, signed by almost every other
member of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Hazardous work for children can include salt production, brick-making, construction
work, porters, seafood processing, recycling, rubber plantation production, begging
and prostitution, said the ILO.
This year, ILO has turned its attention to domestic workers.
Preliminary results from a National Institute of Statistics survey due out on June
12 found there are nearly 28,000 child domestic workers in Phnom Penh.
The research discovered that many of these children work seven days a week, with
few breaks and little or no wages. While 80 per cent of child workers surveyed receive
compensation in the form of food, shelter and education, around 40 percent drop out
of school, while 14 percent remain illiterate.
The Post asked a range of children about their working lives and found stories that
ranged from happy pocket-money-making to childhoods lost through working like slaves.
A maid's story
Neat Srey Mao's father was a drunkard who beat his wife nearly every day and if the
child tried to help her mother, she was also hit.
So when a middle-class family from the neighborhood moved to Phnom Penh to open a
business selling noodles, Srey Mao asked her mother to take her to become their servant.
That was five years ago and Srey Mao has paid a high price for escaping domestic
Sitting in the offices of the Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization (VCAO),
Srey Mao, now 17, says her gruelling working days begin soon after she wakes at 4am.
She is expected to cook, clean the house, wash clothes and help out at the noodle
shop all morning.
Val Klay: used to the blisters.
"If I do something wrong the house owner tells me 'You are not careful with
your work'. I feel very upset," she says, shyly declining to speak other insults
After preparing lunch for the family of nine and washing their dishes, Srey Mao eats
alone in the kitchen.
"They invited me to join them but I don't dare. I am a housemaid, how can I
join them to eat food?"
More food preparation keeps her busy until 1:30 when she leaves the house for her
one hour off each day. Srey Mao chooses to spend this precious free time at VCAO
developing her talents as a hairdresser and beautician.
"After I learn how to do make-up and hairdressing I want to own my own shop,
I don't want to work in my present job," she says, agreeing that the difficulties
she has faced have strengthened her ambitions.
The afternoon is spent selling noodles, cooking dinner, more cleaning, ironing and
taking care of the family's two children. Once they are asleep her time is her own,
but Srey Mao says she is usually too exhausted to do anything and merely goes to
The salary for a month of these days is $10, but Srey Mao says she never sees the
money as her mother comes to collect it beforehand.
Srey Mao's few friends are mostly other young maids on her street and chatting with
them has made her realize that her situation is more difficult than that of others.
This is especially true since Khmer New Year in April, when her mother came to Phnom
Penh and took a year's worth of her wages in advance to pay off debts in the village,
forcing Srey Mao into a debt-bondage that will see her lose another year of her vanishing
"I'm not angry [with my mother]... I don't want to owe someone money so I feel
very upset, but when I pay back the money, the stress will be released from my mind
and I can find another job."
In one of Kampong Cham's many rubber plantations, 12-year-old Moff Leab wanders from
tree to tree, absently scraping latex with his fingers into a bucket slung from his
It's mid-morning and he's just arrived after being at school since 6am, but by 4pm
each day he can usually sell half a bucket of rubber for 1,000 riel.
"I feel happy," says Leab, crouched in the shade provided by the rows of
narrow trees. "I'd rather come here than stay home because here I can earn money."
Leab's daily routine seems typical of many children who live around the rubber plantation,
mixing school, rubber collecting, household chores and play.
Neat Srey Mao, domestic servant.
For some, collecting rubber is a casual source of income, like Leab's friend Nguon
Vannak, 13, who works on Thursdays and Sundays when his school has no manual labor
for the students.
"My mother gives me 200 riel every day, but it's not enough so I come here,"
says Vannak, who can earn from 500 to 2,000 riel depending on his day's haul.
This plantation, about 10 km west of Kampong Cham town, employs 99 official collectors
to empty the bowls into which the rubber slowly drips, but at least 20 children scrape
up small amounts of fresh and half-dried rubber that the other workers miss.
The difference between taking scraps and stealing the company's rubber is a fine
line that can lead to violence if seen to be crossed.
In October last year a 10-year old boy was beaten until bleeding and unconscious
for collecting scrap latex in Kampong Cham, allegedly by three security guards employed
by a rubber plantation.
"Sometimes the village chief confiscates our buckets but the workers don't blame
us, so long as they've already emptied the rubber," says Vannak.
The air buzzes with mosquitoes and most of the children have had dengue fever. There
is also the danger of been bitten by snakes or scorpions.
The more pressing concern for parents who live near the plantation is the poor quality
of education available; the local teacher doesn't always show up for class and truancy
levels are high, say the adults who tap rubber.
As a result many of the children remain illiterate and will likely follow their parents
in a life spent roaming from tree to tree collecting valuable rubber for low wages.
When 16-year old Ngab Sary comes home from work at lunchtime there's one thing she's
not interested in eating: crabs.
Her hometown of Stung Hav is a fishing village 28 km north of Sihanoukville port,
where almost all the 2,000 families there derive their livelihoods from the sea and
Sary has been shelling crabs for a local small business since she was 12 years old.
"In one hour I can peel one kilo of crab meat," she says, an effort that
earns her around $2 a day.
"It's not heavy work so they allow the children to work," Sary says, although
no one currently employed is younger than 16.
The work is fiddly and repetitive, but overall Sary's workplace displays a level
of professionalism not always seen in vocations employing young people.
The mostly teenage girls work regular hours and receive fixed rates of pay according
to the amount of meat they can produce.
But decent conditions don't necessarily make work fun for a 16-year old.
"I don't like the job because I don't have free time to play or study,"
When she started, Sary studied in the mornings and worked in the evenings, but in
2002 began working six hours, making mainstream schooling impossible.
"When we know how to read and write we can have a good job but if we don't know
the letters we must work as crab peelers," she says.
Now Sary receives informal education provided by a Christian NGO, although she retains
her Buddhist beliefs.
Unlike many children who work, Sary is acutely aware of her situation from the books
on child rights she received from the NGO and her father, a local policeman.
Sary knows she lives a life that is "completely different" from more affluent
kids in Cambodia and abroad but also considers herself "lucky" after reading
of Cambodian girls being tricked into working at brothels.
For a moment, talking about her life and monotonous work, it seems as if Sary is
going to cry, but she soon recovers as she talks of the future.
"My goal is to find a place to learn how to sew clothes," says Sary, her
quiet enthusiasm and smile returning.
"I don't know for sure how much longer I will be a crab peeler. If I can find
a good teacher [to learn sewing] I will stop."
In the salt fields
Val Klay winces as she steps into the muddy patch frosted with salt, her feet sinking
into mud that feels near boiling under the late morning sun.
Labor records show her age as 12 but Klay's grandmother says she's ten or 11 and
not yet strong enough to lift rubber boots out of the sucking mud, so she goes barefoot.
Ngab Sary: not for lunch, thanks.
"When I first started I used to get blisters on the soles of my feet...but now
I'm used to it," Klay says. "I help my mother rake the salt and make it
like a mountain. Sometimes I volunteer to work and sometimes my mother wants me to
Kampot's proximity to the sea and availability of flat land make it the source of
most of Cambodia's salt.
Her grandmother has worked these fields since 1979, but Klay's home consists of three
temporary-looking dwellings under the shade of a large roof built by the salt refining
company. A patch of open scrub 20 meters away is their toilet.
For Klay and her family, mere survival is a full-time occupation and every member
is expected to do what they can to help.
Every day during the November to May salt season Klay works in the paddies until
11am when the mud becomes too hot to bear and she returns home to take care of her
four year old brother.
Although she reached grade three, Klay cannot read or write even basic Khmer consonants
or vowels and her babysitting duties mean that now she cannot attend the informal
education provided by ILO-IPEC.
Klay says she doesn't want to work the salt fields for the rest of her life because
"it's too tiring", and that if she knew a happier place, she'd go.
"Right now, I don't know anywhere [to go]... I only want to have a television."
Limited by her poor education and arduous working life, Klay may spend her life scraping
salt and a meager living off the surface of the land around her.