Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said the government was investigating reports of widespread child labor and debt bondage in Cambodia’s brick factories made by Licadho earlier this month, but would hold the local rights group “responsible” if the claims were found to be false.
Speaking at the Phnom Penh launch of a new government plan to combat child labor across the country, the minister attacked Licadho for not working with the ministry on its investigation and going public with its findings without reporting them to officials first.
“That one is not a positive report and we do not welcome it; we welcome good and close cooperation,” he said, urging NGOs to “avoid reports that are unprofessional and affect the national prestige, society and the royal government’s efforts.”
Mr. Sam Heng acknowledged that there was still some child labor at brick factories, however, and urged local authorities to step up their inspection of job sites.
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, the minister declined to say what its follow-up probe on the Licadho report had found because it was still in progress, but issued a warning if the claims could not be substantiated.
“In the case that this report is not true, the one who made this report will be responsible in accordance with our procedures,” he said. Mr. Sam Heng did not explain what actions that could include, and ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment.
In its research for “Build on Slavery,” published on December 2, Licadho spent about three months visiting brick factories clustered around 11 different sites surrounding Phnom Penh that included more than 100 operators employing thousands of workers.
The NGO said it found an entrenched practice of illegal debt bondage in which the owners secured loans to their employees with their labor and paid such low piecework rates that parents were pressured to put their children to work just to earn enough money to eat. It said there was no excuse for local authorities not to be aware of the widespread labor abuses, which were committed with impunity.
Contacted on Thursday by email, Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, Naly Pilorge, defended the group’s work.
“[W]e stand by Licadho’s findings about debt bondage and child labor in brick factories documented in Licadho’s report released on Dec 2, which was also confirmed prior and after by national and international media,” she said.
Reporters had no trouble finding cases of child labor and ubiquitous debt bondage at brick factories near Phnom Penh on two recent occasions, once a few days before the report came out and again on Tuesday.
Never fond of criticism, the Labor Ministry has lately been taking controversial steps to stifle dissent and limit independent research in its field.
A draft law that would establish a system for setting a national minimum wage would levy fines against anyone conducting wage-related research without the government’s permission or for promoting opposition to the wages it sets. Labor rights groups and independent unions say the provisions would violate the public’s constitutional rights to a free press and free speech.
Labor groups have done their own research on salaries in the garment sector that have challenged the ministry’s claims on what constitutes a liveable wage, while unions have organized numerous protests against the industry’s pay rates, upsetting officials and factory owners alike.
Rights groups accuse the CPP-led government in general of waging a mounting offensive against critics ahead of the next election cycle. Licadho itself puts the current number of political prisoners in the country at 26, up from none in June last year.
At Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Sam Heng also launched a new action plan aimed at further reducing the rate of child labor and completely wiping out the most severe forms of it, including sex work, by 2025.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)