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Cambodian Riots Overshadow its Child Labor Problem

While Cambodia’s labor unrest has been widely covered by the press, the Southeast Asian nation’s struggles with child labor have been comparatively neglected. Despite stringent regulations governing the employment of workers under the age of eighteen, the exploitation of underaged workers continues to survive attempts to abolish it.

In Cambodia, there is no dearth of laws that pertain to the labor conditions for minors. While workers can legally be as young as twelve, employers are required to ensure that all employees under the age of eighteen labor in adequately safe environments, don’t work overtime and are not assigned overnight shifts. Employers must also guarantee that these workers are sequestered from all hazardous work materials.

However, part of the problem is that these laws are laced with ambiguity, leaving employers to divine their own interpretations. For example, it’s not at all clear what precisely counts as hazardous. Oum Mean, Cambodia’s secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, admitted that there exists no unequivocal ban preventing minors from working with glue, despite evidence that prolonged exposure can be harmful. He said that potential violations of labor laws like these must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Even labor experts concede that such determinations remain frustratingly complex. Jill Tucker, chief technical advisor to the U.N. factory-monitoring program Better Factories Cambodia, said that there are many competing variables to consider, including a factory’s ventilation system and the specific type of glue in question. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Tucker said, “It’s not as easy as ‘all glues are dangerous’ or ‘no glues are dangerous.’”

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Another problem with the enforcement of child labor laws is that falsifying one’s age for employment purposes is a common practice in a poor country where families often need their children to contribute financially. Last May, a factory accident in Cambodia killed two workers, including a fifteen-year-old girl on the job for only two weeks. Chea Sothavirith, director of administration at Wing Star, the factory where the young girl died, said she presented fake documentation of her age. He said, “Since the incident happened, we respect the law more and we try to be stricter on child labor. We do more studies on the documents and work with authorities before recruiting them.”

In Cambodia, workers under the age of eighteen can only work with a parent or guardian’s explicit consent. Workers between the ages of twelve and fifteen cannot legally perform jobs that require them to miss school. And while Cambodia ratified the U.N. conventions on child labor, it still reserves the right to set its own minimum-age rules.

The problem of child labor has been exacerbated by Cambodia’s startling brisk economic growth. Cambodia has certainly made great strides as an apparel exporter, experiencing a robust 22 percent increase in its shipment of orders over the last nine months in comparison to the same period last year. The total value of its exports topped $4.1 billion for the duration, much higher than last year’s $1.21 billion. Foreign investment has recently poured into Cambodia from Australia, England, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and the U.S. China alone sent the nation $121 million in 2013. And as Cambodia continues to mature economically, it has become progressively more reliant upon its garment sector, which accounts for 80 percent of all its exports.

And that accelerated growth has not been without its attendant challenges. Between 2012 and 2013, Cambodia increased the number of its factories by a hefty 8 percent to 412. This is partly due to the changing topography of sourcing created by the increasing costliness of China, once a prime destination for retailers and brands looking for bargain manufacturing. The combination of widespread poverty and a national demand for more labor places a heavy pressure on children to seek work and on employers to welcome them.

While the U.N. contends that child labor is in global decline there is still evidence that suggests it perseveres as a problem, particularly in the garment industry. A sprawling 900 page report issued by U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,”  documents the unsettling fact that 168 million children still work illegally, 85 million of them in “hazardous” conditions. And some of the worst offenders are prominent sourcing destinations in Asia like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Nepal.

In India, for example, 2 percent of all children between ages five and fourteen work, with almost 1 percent between seven and fourteen. Wrenched from context, these may sound like modest enough figures but given the magnitude of India’s population they are, in fact, staggering. India’s total child population stands at 400 million–more than 31 percent of the overall count–which means there are at least 6 million children working illegally. Most NGO’s claim the actual number is closer to twelve million while some estimate it could be as high as sixty million.

While the absolute numbers were lower in Bangladesh, the percentages were even more distressing. According to the study, more than 10 percent of its children between five and fourteen work, while 6.8% of all children between seven and fourteen combine work with school.

In Indonesia, 3.7% of all children between five and fourteen work and 2.1% of all children between seven and fourteen combine work and school. Exact statistics were not published for Nepal. The report provided no data at all on China.

Internationally led interventions to counter the problem of child labor are becoming more common. Last January, two officials from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs visited Vietnam to determine the extent of forced or indentured child labor in their garment industry. Cooperating with government officials, unions and international and non-governmental organizations, the representatives developed a dark picture of Vietnam’s child labor law violations.

And according to the International Rights Labor Forum, a U.N.-based organization, as much as one-third of the Uzbekistan’s population is forced to pick cotton each fall,  including as many as two million Uzbek children, compelled to leave school for the cotton fields. The U.S., in particular, has weathered pointed criticism for buying cotton from Uzbekistan. Since 2008, the U.S. has bought over 620 tons of Uzbek-sourced cotton products; in February 2013 alone, an estimated 23 tons of cotton were exported from Uzbekistan to the U.S.

And the problem of child labor has proven a complex one, particularly in a nation undergoing great economic transition, like Cambodia. Many labor activists argue that it is important to usher young teens, particularly females, into factory work to keep them out of more dangerous professions, like the sex trade. Simrin Singh, a labor activist at the U.N., said that underemployed teens often “fall off the radar into more informal sector work that’s even less regulated and maybe more dangerous, or morally damaging.”