Rulling party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company announced yesterday that it had amended its hiring policy to forbid contractors from employing children, while at the same time, opposition parliamentarian Mu Sochua made public her plans to visit the company to investigate its labour practices.
According to a copy of a January 9 internal memo provided by the company – and issued five days after an article was published in the Post detailing the widespread use of child labour at the company’s Kampong Speu sugarcane plantation – the company warned contractors responsible for hiring plantation labourers that anyone caught hiring persons under the age of 18 would be fined 50,000 riel ($12.50) on their first offence, and have their contract terminated on their second.
Calling the January 4 news report “helpful” in bringing the issue to his attention, Phnom Penh Sugar Company director Andy Seng said in an email that the company had been unaware that contractors were using child labourers, and noted that contractors’ responsibilities extended beyond just “the finding of large numbers of workers”.
“[Contractors] must be observing all business, legal and moral standards required,” Seng said.
“We were not aware that some of the contractors... had brought in under-age workers to the field. The Cambodian society is family-prone, and it is hard to take a quick look to differentiate children who merely accompany their parents to workplace or otherwise,” he added.
Sochua, citing the same article, posted a statement on her website that she and other opposition MPs would request a visit to the factory to look into the issue, and to disseminate information on the labour law to locals.
In an interview yesterday, she said that she was planning a trip to Europe to address the issue of so-called “blood sugar” with EU parliamentarians, and stressed that the “company cannot just be let off the hook because of this internal memo”, calling the very use of contractors a major problem.
“I don’t support these companies who use contractors, because these are not professional contractors,” she added, highlighting the room for falsification of documents and exploitation. “They are local people. Some of them are landless who are being used by the factories to gather labour.”
Seng, Phnom Penh Sugar’s director, said that the reason for using contractors is simple: “It is neither operationally efficient nor cost-effective for us to do it ourselves.”
“We found it too time-consuming to manage workers on our own, so we outsource,” he said.
“The Phnom Penh Sugar Company is not physically capable of micromanaging details as such,” he continued. “All we can do is supervise, so human rights and business targets are met in the most balanced term.”
Sochua, however, maintained that contractors operate in an “environment where you’re going to recruit among the most vulnerable”, and that simply preventing them from hiring children didn’t go far enough.
“The children are not working, that’s positive. But are they going to school? Are they being fed? Do their parents have a living wage?” she asked. “This is like throwing people into the middle of the ocean and saying ‘you swim or you drown’. The people are drowning.”
According to villager Sroun Phally, 46, things certainly aren’t easy.
Though Phally’s husband and three of her children still work in the cane fields, her two youngest, aged 9 and 12, have not been allowed to work since the memo went into effect.
When interviewed nearly two weeks ago, Phally said she pitied her children, wishing they could leave work and return to school.
But now that they’ve left work, she said, little has changed. Her children still can’t attend school regularly, because the teacher rarely convenes classes.
“They told my sons [that they couldn’t work] about a week ago, and the reason is that they were afraid my sons would get a health problem,” Phally said, noting that it was health problems that made her give up her own job in the fields about a year ago.
Though workers’ wages depend on the amount of cane they cut, Seng said the company pays outside labourers 27,000 riel per tonne of sugarcane cut.
Without her children’s income, she says, she’s had to return to work, this time as a vendor at the company-owned market.
“Now I am not selling well,” she said. “I don’t know how I can earn the 80,000 riel or so to pay for my rented space every month.”