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Making every construction site child-safe and free of child labour

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James Sterling (middle of back row, in glasses) surrounded by his staff during a recent company motivation-building day. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Making every construction site child-safe and free of child labour

James Sterling, CEO of Advance Construction Cambodia as well as its sister architectural company, The Room Design Studio, talked to Post Property on the recent accreditation that his companies have attained. These certificates are a step closer to ending child labour, especially in a country like Cambodia where child labour is dismissed as a casual necessity for families to earn extra income no matter the hazards.

With hundreds of construction sites popping up in tandem with the real estate boom, there have been sites where children are found to be doing the more ‘menial’ tasks onsite.

Sterling’s companies recognise that their operations have an enduring impact on the Cambodian community and environment, and are thus raising awareness in stepping up socially responsible operations that are humane and just. They also do not encourage their staff to do volunteer work with children in any way if they are not qualified to do so. Most importantly, both companies thoroughly vet potential NGOs that they promote, partner with, or work on behalf of.

How and when did you first find out about the ChildSafe movement?

It was through a friend at Ezecom; they were working with NGO Friends-International to create and hone the ChildSafe Business certification scheme.

When did you receive the certification?

We received our first certification in April last year, and have just completed re-certification for Advance Construction and the first certification for The Room Design Studio.

Is it a long process to attain the ChildSafe certificate, and what are the steps taken?

The initial process does not take long, it is mostly team training. We have, over the last two years, trained around 250 of our team. We have also completed many policy and procedure updates to ensure they are in line with the ChildSafe principles.

Why did Advance Construction decide to apply for this certificate - did you see many construction sites with children working on them?

Child safety and team development is a passion of ours. We have never allowed any children on our sites, and have worked with our sub-contractors to ensure they also follow our standards. There are too many children either working or living on sites here, generally as their parents or caregivers have no other option. We have, and always will, provide off-site living for our team in dorms with shared facilities and full-time housekeepers. These are small, very cost-effective additions, and are why our staff retention, in my opinion, is so high.

Being the first construction company in Cambodia to get this certification, would Advance be open to encouraging other construction companies in doing the same?

I would recommend the scheme to every company in every industry. Through these schemes and the education they provide, child-related issues are reduced. The more people who train and understand these issues, the more likely child labour and abuse will be reduced. At the end of the day, if this scheme saves one child’s life, it’s worth it!

What exactly is entailed in the certificate – in terms of engaging local sub-contractors who may not see the importance of not using child labour, or your company doing regular checks on your construction sites?

We have strict inspections on all of our sites to ensure everyone is over 18 years of age. We have adapted all of our contracts and internal policies to reflect our ChildSafe Certification and to ensure that no child labour is used on our behalf.

What vital messages would you like to put out there regarding child labour, especially in a country like Cambodia where the population is very young?

At Advance Construction and The Room Design Studio, we have a strong learning and development programme, and we operate ChildSafe as an extension of this. Our company policies include child protection clauses wherever necessary.

For example, in our employment contract it is stated that “any employee shall not be involved in any case of child abuse, physical, mental or emotional, and will not participate in or distribute any form of child abuse materials. If an employee commits a proven act of child abuse as outlined above we maintain the right to instantly dismiss the employee and will hand over any and all information pertaining to the abuse to the authorities for legal action.”

Every child deserves to have a childhood, to be able to grow and develop through play and education in a safe way. Construction sites are no place for children and never will be. Too many children have lost their lives across the globe, around 22,000 per year (according to the International Labour Organisation), working in hazardous industries. This must stop.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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