Child Labour in Cambodia

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Maeve Galvin, the Cambodia-based Communications and Advocacy Officer for the International Labour Organisation; the United Nations specialized agency focused on labour. All views expressed on this blog are Maeve’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of her employer.

I had a conversation with a young Irish tourist here in Cambodia a few weeks ago. He talked about his time visiting Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, a world heritage site and the country’s most celebrated structure. The highlight for him, he told me, was not being in the surroundings of the visually and architecturally spectacular 12th century temple but it was that he had “bonded” with a young child seller who with the kind of endearing cherubic charm possessed only by those not yet eight years old had convinced him to buy a number of the handmade bracelets she was selling. This story is anything but unique. The tourist was of course well-intentioned but the truth is that he and countless others like him, are dangerously misguided. Their lack of awareness is causing far more harm than good.

Cambodia, just like a large portion of Asia and the majority of Africa is utterly bloated with child labourers. There are over 300,000 of them here (in a population of 14 million people in total) and 215 million globally and that’s the just ones that we have data on.

Tourists such as that unwise backpacker are the most lucrative and reliable market for child labour. Through buying from sellers they are keeping the demand for labour flowing and reinforcing the notion held by poverty stricken parents’ that their child is of more value at work then at school. A cross sectional study of young sellers by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that 84% experienced headaches, 59.1% reported stress, 58.2% fatigue and 11% had had occupation-related accidents. Children on the street also are exposed to violence, crime, illicit drugs, tobacco, alcohol and sex, all elements that can hurt them physically and mentally.

I mention child selling only because it is the most visible example of child labour and one in which tourists can play a key role in eliminating. Of course child labour can be found across a vast range of industries in the developing world. At an evening speaker event staged by the International Labour Organization in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh this week 17 year old Kem Chhan spoke defiantly and eloquently in front an audience of 100 people of his time working on rubbish dumps. One of six siblings in a family who work as scavengers, Chhan started scavenging when he was four years old in addition to working on the side at a recyclable warehouse. The dangers an adult, never mind a child faces when they work on a scavenging dump include sharp objects, contaminated objects, moving traffic; vehicle exhaust; bending; heavy loads; long hours, extreme weather and street crime. The health impacts for waste-pickers like Chhan include a range of gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin diseases, as well as life-threatening tetanus, joint and bone deformities; blistered hands and feet, lacerations breathing difficulties, the list goes on. Chhan, recalled how he was regularly threatened for money by gangsters and how in one incident he fell unconscious for a whole day after being struck by electric wires. He came to on his own and without any medical assistance he began working again to catch up on the crucial day’s work he missed.

After spending six years in scavenging, Chhan enrolled into school at the age of eleven with the assistance of the ILO and the Cambodian government’s Department of Education. He no longer has to scavenge but his struggle is far from over. His education is massively stunted. As the oldest student in his class he had to take a literacy class with the community to catch up with his peers. He told his audience that he felt humiliation in being so behind at school but that this humiliation paled when compared with the feeling a child labourer feels when in the course they come into contact with a child who doesn’t have to work.

At fifteen he left education to get a job in the construction industry. He is now saving up so that he can earn enough money to go back to school. His ambition is to work in a hotel. It may take him years to catch up and gain even the minimum nine years schooling that mid market Cambodian employers in hospitality require of their staff. Chhan is just one example of the countless child labourers whose education is so hampered by their work that it limits their future earning power and contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty in their countries.

173 countries have committed themselves to tackling hazardous work of children “as a matter of urgency” by ratifying the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 No.182. Cambodia is one of them and progress here is encouraging. In Kep province in 2008, a study found 2000 children working in the worst forms of child labour. In 2010 this number was found to have been reduced to 400. In 2008 there were 2000 children working in the salt industry in the Kampot province, but by 2010 this number had decreased to around 250 children. Kep province is poised to be the first child labour free province in Cambodia by June 2012 and the salt sector in the country will be completely free of child labour by December 2012.

However, this progress is entirely reliant on UN agencies, NGOs, international organizations and the Cambodian government in other words, donors. There are only a rare few donors currently aiding Cambodia’s work to end child labour, the major benefactor being the US Department of Labor. Although Irish Aid does wonderful work in Cambodia in terms of land mine clearance and other areas it is not currently a donor here in the field of child labour. It is estimated that it would cost US $100 million for Cambodia to reach its goal of ending the worst forms of child labour by 2016. But money alone can only do so much without a committed, collaborative effort from a range of stakeholders. Tourists can be a key actor in this by being responsible in their purchases. Refusing to buy an item from a persistent and impoverished child seller is often excruciating. Even if you attempt to play with them or engage them in conversation you will likely be told in no uncertain terms “you play, you pay”. However, a far crueller act in the long term is to fuel a practice which keeps them out of school, impacts their health so that their life spans are shortened, sustains their poverty and hampers their future economic progress.




Child Labour in Cambodia

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