Millions in Asia’s Child Labor Force Denied Basic Rights

Across Cambodia, more than 660,000 children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labor, many of whom were trafficked. Their right to safety and protection has been severely compromised. They work for low or no wages. Some work under the threat of violence. They are forgoing their education and their childhood.

In the most dynamic and fastest-growing economic regions around the world, millions of children are still involved in child labor. There are more child laborers in this region than in any other in the world. In fact, half of the world’s child laborers are in the Asia-Pacific—more than 78 million children, almost 10 percent of all children in the region. The Asia-Pacific also owns the sad global record of having the most victims of trafficking involved in commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor and other severe forms of child labor. The basic rights of these children are being denied.

Regional estimates based on national household surveys identify children involved in hazardous work, but many are not counted because of the illegal and often inaccessible trades they’re involved in. Many are secluded in hazardous household work, debt bondage, the sex industry, compulsory labor or other forms of slavery that fail to be recorded. Studies are often based on small surveys or rapid assessments, failing to paint a full picture. For this reason, the real number of child workers is likely significantly higher than these estimates.

Although the causes of child labor in Cambodia are numerous, police enforcement, judicial systems, lack of effective coordination among actors who have the responsibility to protect children, and inadequate social services—with only one district social worker for 25,000 people—all allow the practice to continue.

The global community is urging all countries to take action. The proposal for the post-2015 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals would take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor and eradicate forced labor. By 2025, the new goals aim to end child labor in all its forms.

Since 2002, June 12 has served as a date for the world to renew its call to eradicate child labor, especially in the worst forms. This year, the focus for World Day Against Child Labor is on the importance of quality education as a key step in tackling child labor.

Education is a cornerstone of prosperous and flourishing societies—a key element to reducing poverty and child labor. Yet the U.N. Development Program estimates that the Cambodian government only invests 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in education.

A holistic approach can adequately tackle the root causes of child labor, including social protection and poverty alleviation policies. While the ratification of international conventions, the installation of laws or policies, and the formulation of specific strategies to reach vulnerable families and children at the national level are all critical, they will not be enough if society remains tolerant of child labor.

Government leadership is critical to ensure that the policies and national budget prioritize free, compulsory and quality education for all children until the legal age of employment. It must also ensure existing laws on the minimum age of workers are adhered to, especially in relation to protecting children from hazardous work, including in family businesses, by better monitoring labor conditions.

Despite progress in brick factories, fishing, footwear and agriculture to protect child laborers, more needs to be done. As a nation hard hit by child labor, Cambodia must also be a leader in the region to bring about effective inter-government coordination and collaboration to address labor exploitation and trafficking.

Civil society and media can change attitudes that condone child labor. More awareness needs to be raised about the harmful developmental effects of labor on children’s physical, emotional and psychological growth.

Shoppers and consumers can be smart and help bring an end to child labor in its worst forms. They can demand products that do not use child labor in any part of their supply chain. Industries dealing in carpets, bricks, rice, embellished textiles, stones, dried fish, shrimp, rubber, bamboo and sugarcane have been identified as top offenders of using children in their workforces. Look for options that assure consumers that products were not made in slave-like conditions.

Families and religious communities can put in place protective practices that lead to the eradication of hazardous working conditions and gender-based violence. They can challenge social norms, stereotypes and prejudices that silently tolerate child labor.

Each of us can and should do something to alleviate the suffering of millions of children, for the sake of a future sustainable and thriving Cambodia.

Gabriela Olguin is a child protection adviser at World Vision.

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