Because Cambodia has one of the largest populations of child workers in Southeast Asia, a report released Monday showing the use of child labor has gone down marginally since 1997 should have been encouraging.
But with no accurate figures for the worst forms of child labor, such as child prostitution and street children, which are estimated to number around 12,000 in Phnom Penh alone, the Cambodian Human Development Report 2000 allowed little room for celebration.
The report, put together by the Ministry of Planning and the UN Development Program, was released in conjunction with International Poverty Alleviation Day.
From 1997 to 1999, the number of child workers dropped by 5 percent in the 10 to 13 years rural children age group, the report said. In the 14 to 17 years rural children age group, there was a 3 percent drop.
Despite the decrease, the report still estimates that 46 percent of rural children between ages 14 and 17 work, while 23 percent of urban children in that age group work.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said the information will assist in the development of policies to protect children’s rights and draw national and international attention to “major issues” in Cambodia, such as the increase in sexual exploitation of children.
“Many children are involved in bad forms of child labor, such as children trafficking for sexual exploitation, or employed as construction workers and household maids,” he said.
However, not all the children who work find it detrimental to their health, the report said, noting that the majority of the country’s child laborers work on family farms or in family businesses without payment.
Hun Sen said culture needs to be considered when measuring child labor. In Cambodia, child labor is employed to transfer traditional knowledge and skills from adults to children.
But, long hours spent working, even if within the family circle, can prevent children from attending school or simply enjoying their childhood, the report said.
The child labor figures contained in the new report are taken from the 1999 Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey, which provided questionnaires to 6,000 households in 24 provinces.
Child workers were defined as anyone under 18 years old who worked for direct payment or worked as an unpaid family worker for at least one hour during the week the survey was conducted.
The minimum age to legally work in Cambodia is 15 years old. However, children between the ages of 12 and 15 years are allowed to engage in “light work,” according to the report.
Ma Sophea, national program manager for the International Labor Organization’s program for the elimination of child labor, said the report signaled the government’s awareness of the problem.
However, he said, the survey’s findings need to be clarified to show a more precise picture of child labor trends in Cambodia.