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Despite ‘Sharp’ Decrease in Child Labor in Cambodia, Risks Still Abound

While child labor in Cambodia’s garment factories have “reduced sharply,” according to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last week, human-rights activists warn that many subcontractors that use children continue to evade detection.

In a survey of nearly 500 licensed garment export factories, Better Factories Cambodia, a joint initiative by the United Nations agency and the World Bank, found just 10 cases of child labor, a considerable reduction from 74 in 2014.

But campaigners say that children turned away from factory jobs may find employment outside of the traditional four-wall setting, including homes where garments are produced by subcontractors with little to no regulatory oversight.

“There have been major strides in eliminating child labor [in factories],” William Conklin, Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center, a Washington, D.C.-based workers-rights nonprofit, told Reuters. “But what it doesn’t address is the issue in the subcontract area. That is a big, unknown area in Cambodia.”

As Cambodia’s largest employer, the garment industry accounts for 40 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s gross domestic product. Its 800,000 workers produce goods for multinational brands such as Adidas, Gap, H&M, Nike and Puma.

The ILO noted in its report that child labor typically involves workers under the age of 15 who used false documentation to attain employment. Child workers often hail from families who were forced to migrate after climate change affected their harvests, according to Dy The Hoya, a program officer with the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.

Tracking child laborers in the informal sector, where data is scarce, can be difficult. The ILO, for instance, doesn’t have figures on subcontractors, said Esther Germans, a program manager with the organization.

“It is generally assumed that working conditions are worse and one can expect more incidences of child labor since there is less scrutiny,” she told Reuters.

The Cambodia, which has come under scrutiny for its human-rights record, announced in October that it would increase the monthly minimum age in the textile industry in January from $170 to $182.

H&M, which recently hosted a summit of fair wages in Phnom Penh, says wages in the Cambodian factories it contracts are 24 percent higher than the minimum.