Chhou Kan, a mother of six, has worked in the salt fields in Kampot province for 20 years. Famous for its black and red pepper, Kampot is also the only province in Cambodia that produces salt.
To make ends meet after her husband died, Chhou Kan brought her five eldest children to the salt fields to join her.
“When my husband was alive, my children did not work. But when he died, I had to use the children to help me,” Chhou Kan says.
“It is very important for me to get an income. My financial situation is difficult, and I have no rice fields.”
As we mark the 10th anniversary of the World Day Against Child Labour, the situation of Chhou Kan and her family illustrates some of the difficulties people and governments face when it comes to child labour.
For many parents in Cambodia, sending their children to work is a matter of economic necessity.
Chhou Kan’s 13 year-old daughter, Naroun, began working at the age of eight. For four years, her daily schedule consisted of school in the morning, then joining her mother in the salt fields, where she would work until early evening.
Naroun was recently helped to leave the Kampot salt fields through support provided by the International Labour Organisation’s drive to eliminate child labour.
This program was able to give her school clothes, a schoolbag, a bicycle and other support through the gradual process of ending her gruelling daily work. Naroun is now a full-time student in Grade Six.
“Working in the salt fields is difficult, but school is not so difficult,” says Naroun, whose favourite subjects are mathematics and Khmer literature.
Naroun says the work for which she earned 10,000 riel ($2.50) a day was very difficult.
“It is heavy work, filling and collecting water. The salt is very hot, and when it dries and becomes sharp, you can cut your feet badly. There were no boots for our feet.
“I was getting sick a lot. I would get headaches and stomach problems after long hours out in the sun.”
Salt-field work involves distilling salt from sea water into smaller pools.
It is an entirely manual process that involves heavy lifting over sharp salt crystals and long hours working under strong sunlight and in intense heat.
The ILO has described the practice of children working in Cambodia’s salt fields as “one of the worst forms of child labour”.
Although finances are still a huge obstacle for the family, Chhou Kan is optimistic about her daughter’s future. “Naroun is a very smart child, and is always reading at home,” she says.
In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the population are poor agricultural workers for whom every day is a struggle to support their families.
For many parents, sending their children to work is an economic necessity, but is nevertheless a decision taken with great difficulty.
The ILO’s most recent estimate was that 215 million children world-wide are involved in child labour. About 1.5 million of those children are in Cambodia.
They should be at school, acquiring skills that prepare them for decent work as adults.
By entering the labour market prematurely, they are deprived of this critical education and training that can help lift them, their families and their communities out of an endless cycle of poverty.
There are at least two reasons why World Day Against Child Labour this year is a day of hope for Cambodian children trapped in child labour and those at risk.
First, there appears to be a growing realisation that Cambodia needs a well-educated young workforce to fuel its economic growth.
Because child labour deprives children of the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge, child labour retards and prevents economic growth.
This realisation has led to many initiatives by the Royal Government of Cambodia to end child labour and get all children into schools.
Policies in labour, education and social protection recently put in place by the government focus on child labour and will help to speed up its elimination.
Second, in 2008 Hun Sen signed the first national plan of action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour in this country.
A draft national plan for the period from 2013 to 2017 will soon be finalised.
In 2009, Cambodia was one of the first countries in the region to adopt the ILO’s goal of ending the worst forms of child labour by 2016.
Since then, the government has taken many steps to realise that goal. Those steps are beginning to show results.
Recent monitoring has shown a significant decline in the use of child labour.
But the job is clearly not done, and time is short.
The future of Cambodia’s children, and child labourers, is in our hands.
International Labour Organisation