Drought and a bad rice harvest drove 13-year-old Huth Nak to help his elder brothers at the brick factory where they worked in Muk Kampul district, Kandal province on Dec 22.
An act of family obligation would turn this day, spent pushing clay onto a pressing machine, into one that would mar Huth Nak’s entire future.
Untrained at using the machine, the boy caught his hand in the press, and his right arm was ripped off at the shoulder.
“I still hurt badly in my arm sometimes,” he said. “I never feel angry at my brother. I just wanted to help them finish their work.”
Huth Nak is just one example of the poverty that leads children to work in dangerous workplaces. The International Labor Organization estimates that 253,455 children in Cambodia are employed in the worst forms of child labor.
Some of the most dangerous workplaces are brick factories, salt factories, fish processing plants and rubber plantations, according to Theng Chhorvirith, national project coordinator for the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.
These jobs can lead to stunted growth, stooped shoulders, swollen feet, burned and cut hands, dizziness, and amputation of limbs, he said. Many children also suffer from loneliness because they migrate from other provinces to work.
“This work effects physical, mental and psychological development,” Theng Chhorvirith said. “It prevents children from participating in education.”
Cross-border porters are also at great risk because of the heavy loads they must bear.
While restaurant and hotel employment is not considered as physically hazardous, they leave children vulnerable to trafficking, Theng Chhorvirith said.
IPEC plans to release a study this year on children working in brick factories in Kompong Cham and Siem Reap, two of the worst provinces for this labor. Out of 1,188 children aged 7 to 17 who were surveyed, nearly 70 percent in Kompong Cham and 60 percent in Siem Reap reported being sent to work by parents.
“Parents are so poor, and payment depends on the quantity of product made,” Theng Chhorvirith said. “That’s why parents like to have children working.”
Even with children working at least 8 hours a day, the salaries they make are low, ranging between 1,500 to 2,500 riel a day.
“Employers don’t want to employ children but their parents beg employers to let their child work because they need money,” Khy Sarin, deputy of the Department of Employment and Manpower, said.
When a serious injury like Huth Nak’s occurs, parents are often hesitant to ask for compensation or file complaints, either because they don’t know their rights or they fear losing their jobs, said Kek Galabru, found of the local human rights NGO Licadho.
The employer at Lucky Industry brick factory paid Preah Kossamak Hospital, where Huth Nak was taken for treatment, $80 for medical bills. But it has not been enough to cover the mounting costs, said Chin Mak, 50, the victim’s mother.
Licadho has been monitoring six cases of amputation from workplace accidents since 1996. They managed to get compensation for just one case, in which the victim received $1,000.
Out of more than 1.5 million Cambodian children working, 313,811 of them are under the age of 15, according to the ILO.
The law says that children must be between 15 to 18 years old, and they must be trained with skills for the job in advance, said Khy Sarin.
He said the Labor Ministry recognizes that there is limited law enforcement capability to stop employers from hiring young children. Adding to the problem is that children often end up in more dangerous forms of labor if they are removed from their jobs.
“We can stop employers from hiring young employees,” Khy Sarin said. “But if we do that, children will go into prostitution or somewhere else.”
The Labor Ministry is working with ILO to reduce dangerous child labor to 8 percent by 2015 from 16.5 percent currently. The plan, called the “National Plan of Action on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor” will start this year with the Labor Ministry issuing six decrees banning child labor at fisheries, salt farms, rubber plantations, brick making, garment factories and shoe factories.
ILO and the Labor Ministry have already found some success in reducing dangerous child labor. IPEC estimates that 4,000 children have been helped since 2001. They were removed from their jobs and given the opportunity to attend school and receive vocational training. Most girls obtain skills in makeup and hairdressing, while boys learn motorbike and boat repair, Theng Chhorvirith said.
But for Huth Nak, vocational training is not an option as his amputation was so extensive, that he does not have enough flesh to attach an artificial arm.
“I have no idea whether I will reach school or not because my right hand has gone and I cannot use my left hand to write,” Huth Nak said.