The labor minister said Tuesday there were so few underage workers in the garment industry that “we can count them on our fingers,” but a unionist and an NGO countered that child labor was still rife in the country’s smaller garment factories.
Speaking to reporters after an industrial relations conference at the InterContinental Hotel in Phnom Penh, Ith Sam Heng, the minister, conceded that child labor was an issue in the agriculture and fishing industries, but claimed that the government had nearly eradicated the illegal practice in garment factories.
“It has been found that there were only a few cases and we can count them on our fingers,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “There were only four to 10 cases.”
He added that in most of these cases, the underage workers lied about their age in order to get a job.
Ath Thorn, head of the country’s largest independent garment workers union, said that because the country’s larger factories are subject to significant oversight from the government and the International Labor Organization, it was difficult for them to hire underage workers.
However, he said, many of the larger factories sub-contract to smaller factories that are poorly, if ever, inspected.
“Small factories have hundreds of cases [of child labor] because government inspection is weak,” he said. “There is poor implementation of the law, so when they go inspect the factory, the factory knows in advance.”
Mr. Thorn estimated that even in the 600 or so larger factories where inspections are common, there are between 30 and 40 factories where child labor persists.
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said not enough was being done to prevent factories from hiring underage workers using fake documents.
“The workers falsify their documents in order to work. The factories know those workers are underage and the factory just pretends not to know because they don’t want to take any responsibility,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)