On postcard racks in Phnom Penh, scenes of child labor can be found next to pictures of Angkor Wat. On one postcard, a boy is selling birds on the riverfront, with “Le Cambodge” written in bold font underneath.
Now 18, Nong Lila, the boy in the picture, remembers that as the worst time in his life.
“I was working from dawn until midnight to feed my family,” he said. “I started working because my little brother was dying from dengue fever and my mom was suffering from depression. I often got beaten up by older boys for the money I had earned.”
According to Mar Sophea, national program manager for the UN International Program to Eliminate Child Labor, an estimated 16 percent of Cambodian children are laborers. And it is not just their schooling that suffers.
Salt production, rubber plantations and fishing in Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kompong Cham and Sihanoukville, respectively, were deemed hazardous sectors for child labor last year by the International Labor Organization and IPEC. A new program has been launched by IPEC to address child labor in those sectors.
“Those sectors were chosen because they involve the highest number of children and are the most visibly hazardous within the communities. Other sectors like mining are obviously more dangerous but don’t have substantial enough numbers of children involved to be targeted,” Mar Sophea said.
About 50 members from the National Subcommittee on child labor, government representatives and NGOs attended a two-day seminar last week. For the first time, representatives from the salt, fishing and rubber industries participated, a real indication of progress, Mar Sophea said.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said that although only general plans were discussed, the US had confidence that the $1 million it recently donated to ILO-IPEC would be put to good use.
“The ILO has experts with experience, and Licadho can help to build capacity within [the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation],” he said.
Wiedemann stressed that parents should be sensitized to the matter so kids will stay in school.
He said the US government was pleased to see child labor was not common in Cambodia’s largest industry, the garment sector.
“The US also had child labor during the earlier parts of our nation’s history when we were an agricultural country, so it is easy to understand here,” he added.