For Luy Nary, a waitress at a popular Khmer barbecue joint in the capital’s Tuol Kork district, the all-too-common sight of child labour takes shape in 10-year-old Leap.
“His mother drops him off every day,” she said.
Leap begins peddling chewing gum for 2,000 riel (about 50 cents) a pack at restaurants around 5pm, and usually works until 8pm or 9pm.
“If I don’t sell everything, I stay out until midnight,” he said.
On a typical work night Leap, the youngest of five siblings, said he brings in about 20,000 riel (about $5), which goes to his mother to support the family.
Poverty leads families to believe “a cute child selling goods” is an option to make money and help get an education, Friends International communications coordinator James Sutherland said this week. But this was “misleading”, as working day and night left children too tired to go to school.
“There is recent evidence too that . . . in some cases this is an organised, exploitative activity involving trafficking – children being ‘recruited’ from families to work as sellers and kept in poor conditions by their ‘employers’,” Sutherland said.
With a metal tray of fruit and hard-boiled eggs balanced on her head, 13-year-old Theara also does rounds at the same restaurants most nights. She says her two sisters and mother do the same thing. On a good night, she can bring in 50,000 riel (about $12.50).
For four months her family has lived in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district, where fruit is sold wholesale. Theara said her father, 42-year old rice farmer Tay Kean, a native of Prey Veng province, drove her to Tuol Kork on his moto.
Kean, who waits nearby while his children hawk their goods, said this was the first year he and his family decided to migrate to Phnom Penh for the dry season.
“Fifty to 60 per cent of my village left,” he said, adding that this was the first year for him “because of the drought”.
“My neighbours came before, so I know what to do in Phnom Penh because of that,” he continued. He plans to return to the province in August or September to plant rice.
Kean spoke with the demeanor of a man resigned to his fate. Seated at a bench outside a restaurant while Theara worked inside, he said the decision to put his children to work was “difficult”.
According to Sutherland, obvious problems with children working at night included traffic, lack of sleep and being exposed to drunk clientele.
“Their ‘minders’ generally keep well out of sight so children are usually alone in what can be potentially dangerous situations,” he said.
Buth Phos, 13, who lives with his aunt and two cousins in Chbar Ampov, near Monivong Bridge, was selling rice crackers and fruit at a beer garden in Tonle Bassac commune one night this week.
“I have come out in the streets to sell fruit just about one year, but my two cousins have been selling before me for several years,” he said, adding that his aunt drops them off by motorbike, picks them up at the end of the night and collects the money as well.
“I don’t have an exact time to go back home, it is depends on how good or bad my luck is,” he said before moving on to another table.
At the same locale, off-duty soldier Rithy Oum, 28, bought some mango and pineapple from Phos, a purchase he viewed as “a good deed”. Oum, who said he brought food in his free time to street children in his neighbourhood, maintained that he doesn’t trust NGOs to use his money wisely. “They don’t have the same idea as me.”
He said the government should establish facilities to take care of the children.
Such an approach would be acceptable in a “communist country”, said government spokesman Phay Siphan, “but in a democracy the family has to take responsibility for the welfare of their kids”.
“A traditional culture” in which families believe their kids must help earn income is also at play, Siphan continued, adding that the government has anti-exploitation education programs to change this mindset. According recent government data, some 19.3 per cent of the country’s four million children between 5 and 17 are “economically active”.
One official at the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Department of Children, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press, said children “need a free and independent life, therefore they cannot live in the child centre established by the government”.
“No one forces them or hires them to work at night as child exploitation . . . when we buy their fruits or chewing gum it means we have helped them and their family,” he said.
Such a view “shows huge gaps in understanding”, says Sutherland.
“Unfortunately, when you buy from one of these children you are not doing a good deed, you are ultimately causing them more harm by keeping them in that dangerous situation.”
If approached by a child, Friends International recommends following their Childsafe Movement’s seven tips for travellers and citizens. Those particularly concerned can call their hotline: 012 311 112.