SIHANOUKVILLE – On a dusty highway on the edge of this port city, thousands of young women and a few hundred young men block evening traffic as they stream out of the New Star Shoes factory.
“There is almost no one aged over 25 at this factory,” says Ath Thorn, head of the country’s largest independent trade union. “This is good for the company, because young women are afraid to organize a union and don’t have children.”
Nearly all the workers who agreed to be interviewed last month at bustling roadside cafes near the factory in Muoy commune said they were aged between 16 and 18.
“I’m not happy working here, but I have no choice,” said a 16-year-old worker, who has spent six days a week behind a New Star sewing machine after starting work at the factory seven months ago using fake identification documents.
“We have no choice since our parents are poor so we have to force ourselves to work in the factory,” added an 18-year-old, who started working at New Star when she was 17.
The legal age to work in a factory in Cambodia is 15. But the law says that “juveniles,” teenagers between 15 and 17, cannot work overtime or engage in heavy work, and must have at least 13 hours off between shifts.
So, like many factories, New Star, which employs about 4,000 workers, has ostensibly set its age limit at 18.
But according to Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), it is common practice at New Star—and factories across the country—to employ underage workers who use fake identification to meet age requirements.
“Because the manufacturers don’t want to abide by the rules for juvenile workers, they accept falsified documents and pretend not to know that workers are under 18,” Mr. Tola said.
Taiwanese-owned New Star makes footwear for international brands including GEOX, an Italian firm with 1,225 stores worldwide, whose sales topped $873 million last year. Until January, New Star also manufactured shoes for international sports shoe giant Asics.
In a one-room corrugated iron shack a few minutes’ drive from the factory, Tha, the father of a 17-year-old New Star worker, explained the ease with which his family obtained false identification to get around the factory’s age restrictions.
“My daughter was too young to work at the New Star factory, so we borrowed a family book and birth certificate from another family which belonged to someone who was older,” said Tha, who asked not to have his full name published for fear that his daughter could lose her job.
“Families help each other,” he said.
Tha said his daughter simply had to memorize the fake documents—including a new name, place of birth, date of birth and family members’ names—before being quizzed by an administrator at the factory in order to get a job.
Tha used the same procedure for his niece, who was sixteen when she started at New Star last year.
“It’s quite easy to borrow ID from someone else, because there is no photo on the birth certificate or family book,” he said.
And given that she is treated like any other employee at New Star, Tha’s daughter does not receive the legal protection that a juvenile worker is entitled to.
“Sometimes I get tired and get swollen hands because we have to pull the soles of the shoes very hard which makes my wrists and hands hurt,” she said at the family’s home.
Tha’s daughter and her New Star colleagues are allowed one hour for lunch, but no other breaks during a nine-hour working day.
“If we go to the toilet too often, the group leader shouts at us,” she says.
Living Lu, senior manager at New Star Corporation, the parent company of New Star Shoes, said the factory’s standard procedure to check an applicant’s age was a “simple interview and oral test” to ensure that the information on at least two identification documents is correct.
“The requirement for employment this moment is the age upon 18,” he said in an email.
Mr. Lu blamed the Cambodian authorities for any discrepancies between the factory’s policies and the actual age of its employees, which, according to a number of workers and union representatives, is sometimes under 15.
One New Star worker interviewed for this article, who declined to give her name, said that she was 14.
“Because of the weak control of fake certificates by the Cambodian government, some workers can get fake certificates easily,” Mr. Lu said. “And this situation also makes some foreign ventures feel disturbing.”
Ada Hung, head of public relations in the Asia Pacific for GEOX, said the company expected all of its suppliers to adhere to its code of conduct and manufacturer’s agreement, which include compliance with local laws.
“The full respect of these Codes is mandatory to collaborate with Geox,” Ms. Hung said. “In case of non-respect, Geox will terminate the contract and any further cooperation and ask for all damages, including those to its image and reputation.”
“We don’t have any evidence of the presence of underage workers in a factory,” she said, adding that Geox has sourced directly from New Star since 2011.
However, Minako Yoshikawa, a public relations officer for Asics, said the company had been alerted of suspected child labor in New Star early last year by Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), an International Labor Organization (ILO) program that monitors garment and footwear factories in the country.
In response to the problem, she said: “ASICS sponsored child labor prevention training for all its Cambodian factories (including New Star) in collaboration with BFC.”
In February last year, BFC identified two workers under the age of 15 at New Star, who were removed from the factory and placed in BFC’s “remediation program,” according to Ros Thoeun, an officer who conducts child labor field investigations for BFC.
“We partner with NGOs to give the girls vocational training such as sewing, beauty and makeup,” he said. “But they [can] go back [to the factory] at 15.”
The two underage workers BFC found at New Star did return to the factory once they reached 15, Mr. Thoeun said, despite New Star’s stated policy of requiring workers to be aged 18.
According to Pichmalika Yim, BFC’s senior program officer for monitoring, there has been no further assessment visit by BFC to New Star since February 2014, and no date has been set for one.
However, Ms. Yim said the monitoring body organized an “inter-ministerial workshop” in June for government departments to discuss ways to stop the use of fake identification in the garment sector. It is unclear if any government action has resulted from the workshop, she said.
Factories in the country, and the brands they source from, are well aware that fake identification is a problem in the country’s garment factories, but a young and compliant workforce is expedient for employers, said Dave Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S. based labor rights group.
“Any major brand who says they are unaware of the connection between the fake ID problem and the underage worker problem are either being untruthful or admitting that they cannot monitor an industry where a given brand is only invested in 20 or 30 factories,” he said.
Mr. Tola at CLEC said due to widespread poverty in the country, it is inevitable that some families will chose to send their daughters to work in factories once they become “juveniles.” But that is not justification for factories to claim ignorance as they flout the law by failing to provide proper protection to those young workers, he added.
“We understand the needs of families,” he said. “But manufacturers take advantage of that need. Businesses need to respect the conditions for juveniles if they want to employ them.”
Pressed on what they are doing to ensure proper conditions at their factories in Cambodia, leading brands such as Asics, Levi Strauss and Adidas often point to their involvement with the ILO’s Better Factories program, which provides reports to brands on the conditions of the factories they buy from.
In order to qualify for an export license, garment factories must sign up to the BFC program. There are currently 514 garment factories signed up with BFC, as well as 11 footwear factories.
Until just over a year ago, the findings of factory visits by BFC were only available to factories themselves and the brands they supplied. However, following the death of a young teenage worker at New Star’s sister factory Wing Star in 2013, and a Stanford Law School report that year saying conditions in factories were worse than when BFC started, the monitoring body fell under intense pressure to be more open.
So at the end of 2013, BFC launched its Transparency Index. Now, summary reports are published on the BFC website, showing whether a factory has passed or failed on 21 ‘critical issues’ ranging from child labor to discrimination against union members, health and safety, and the payment of wages.
But a remaining issue, according to BFC deputy program manager Camilla Roman, is enforcement, which is ultimately the responsibility of the government. Although BFC gives the government details of every child labor case it uncovers, Ms. Roman says, her organization is not aware of a single instance of enforcement action.
“At the moment we don’t have any information about follow up action by the Ministry of Labor,” she said. “We would like to have more interaction with the Ministry of Labor and more information about follow-up action they take when we pass on to them confirmed child labor cases.”
Just 4 percent of the factories it monitors have been found to employ workers under 15, according to BFC’s latest “Synthesis Report,” but this is likely to be an underestimate, Ms. Roman said.
“BFC investigates only a sample [of workers in the factories it monitors], so the prevalence of child labor is likely to be greater than factory level-data suggest,” she said.
To complicate matters, some factories hide underage workers when “visitors” arrive, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published this month, titled “Work Faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry.”
“They told me to hide under the table and put a pile of clothes on us,” a 15-year-old who started work in a garment factory at 14, told researchers for the HRW report. “We were also scared that we would be fired. So we tried to keep very quiet when the visitors were there.”
A 17-year-old girl interviewed by HRW at another factory told of an incident early last year.
“A day before they were about to have visitors in the factory, the factory called a meeting of all the younger children who worked in the factory and told them not to come,” she said.
“And then the Chinese manager asked me my age and when I told him, he told me to go home for that day.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story quoted Camilla Roman, deputy program manager of the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program, saying that the organization’s finding that 4 percent of the factories it monitors employ underage laborers is likely lower than the actual rate because “BFC investigates only a sample [of factories].” The sample that Ms. Roman was referring to was not of the factories that BFC monitors, but a sample of the workers in the factories it monitors.