More than 20 child laborers were rescued in Phnom Penh on Tuesday after anti-human trafficking authorities arrested a couple who had forced the children to work as fruit sellers in exchange for payments made to their families, according to police.
Officers from the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department teamed up with local police to raid the couple’s home in Chbar Ampov district’s Chbar Ampov II commune, where they found 22 children being held in cramped quarters, said district police chief Em Saravuth.
“This morning, anti-human trafficking department police and district police arrested two suspects who exploited child labor. We found 22 children inside the house who were sleeping because they were tired from selling on the street the night before,” he said.
Mr. Saravuth said the 22 had been forced into work as fruit sellers at the city’s beer gardens and restaurants after a middleman brokered agreements with their parents, who received cash from the suspects in exchange for their children’s labor.
“Before the children were sent to the two suspects, a broker made a deal with the parents,” he said.
The police chief said the two suspects were questioned Tuesday evening at the anti-human trafficking department’s headquarters.
Na Neang, deputy director of the department, identified the couple as Khen Vandy, 30, and her husband, Chea Sady, 28, adding that they would be held overnight and questioned further today.
“Before we arrested them, our police investigated this couple for a long time. We were suspicious of them,” she said. “We started to investigate because in the past, we never saw a lot of children selling and we began wondering why there were so many.”
Ms. Neang said that police had found the house by following the children home after work. She said their keepers stood accused of subjecting minors to working conditions harmful to their health under Article 339 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000,000 million riel ($2,500).
Yu Sopheak, who accompanied police during the raid as a representative of the municipality’s social affairs department, said the couple’s house was spacious, but packed with goods for the children to sell, leaving little room for them to sleep.
“I saw that the house was very dark and had no space for air to come in so that the children could breathe,” he said, adding that the victims were between the ages of 6 and 17 and that none of them were from Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sopheak said the children told him that the amount of time they were required to work depended on how much money their parents had accepted from the couple, with some claiming to have worked for more than two months.
“At about 4 p.m. every day, the suspects used motorbikes to transport the children to the restaurants, where they sold fruit until 5 a.m., when they came to pick them up and bring them back to the house,” he said.
Mike Nowlin, deputy country director of Hagar International, said that while the raid was an improvement over the authorities’ past policy of rounding street sellers up and sending them to the city’s social affairs centers, the living conditions of the children’s families would continue to make them vulnerable to abuse.
“The stronger a person’s income, or being able to feed their family, the less likely they’re going to make that decision [to sell their children for labor],” he said.
“But with no national program of welfare, there’s not an easy solution,” he added. “Ultimately, it’s an economic issue and people do it to feed their families.”
(Additional reporting by Anthony Jensen)