Prek thmei commune, Kien Svay district, Kandal province – Each night, as dusk falls on the rows of restaurants along Phnom Penh’s riverside, a rag-tag army of children bearing trays of jasmine and bunches of roses appears. They seem to come from nowhere or from hiding places on the streets of Phnom Penh. One rumor even had it they were dispatched by gangs.
In fact, they come from Kien Svay.
As many as 100 children, some residents estimate, make the commute nightly from a handful of sleepy villages where jasmine and frangipani are planted on every spare scrap of land, and nearly everyone is somehow involved in this exacting cottage industry.
Ny Sreynic, 10, has been selling jasmine since she was 4 years old. Now a sweet-faced fourth-grade student, she describes her days as long and harrowing.
She wakes up in time for 6 am class and leaves for Phnom Penh at 4:30 pm—a trip that can be made by motorbike in half an hour at a reckless pace. There, she studies for an hour more, then begins work at 5:30 or 6 pm.
Her mother drives her from one restaurant to the next, focusing on bars frequented by tourists and expatriates. She rarely gets home by midnight, and often is hours later.
“It is hard for me to sell the flowers because I have no time to study,” Ny Sreynic said. “I feel tired and exhausted as well when I go to school.”
But her mother, Touch Sopheap, 37, said she had little choice. Her husband died 10 years ago, leaving her little besides his motorbike. She tried to work as a taxi driver, she said, but earned less than $1 per day.
“So I asked my daughter to help me by selling flowers at the Phnom Penh restaurants,” she said.
Touch Sopheap said that she was concerned about her daughter’s long hours, but that she could not control the ebb and flow of business.
“She can come back early when she sells all the flowers but when there are less customers she has to stay late. Otherwise I can not pay for the gasoline,” she said.
Touch Sopheap said that when her daughter first began working at the Phnom Penh restaurants, she hardly knew how to speak.
Now, Ny Sreynic is a savvy marketer who can sell five or 10 jasmine garlands and 10 roses on a good night.
On an extremely lucky night, she said, she could sell as many as 50 roses. “Party. Elsewhere,” she stated knowingly, in English, recalling the Phnom Penh bar’s raucous monthly gatherings.
Despite her long experience, her job is fraught with difficulties. These include: Traffic hazards—she still has a nasty scar on one leg; hostile barkeepers—a guard at a beer garden once beat her to make her leave; and most of all, overpowering exhaustion that can lead a sleepy flower girl to fall off a motorbike on the dark, bumpy ride home.
Given the hardships, it’s no surprise that this occupation is taken on only by children of the desperately poor.
The wealthier families here grow, harvest, weave and wholesale the flowers at a healthy profit to market retailers or for special orders on Buddhist holidays.
Mech Sok Huo, 44, can afford to sell her flowers at the markets, as she has been selling flowers for more than 15 years, she said. Her 8-meter by 100-meter plot is lush with waist-high jasmine plants that she and her family harvest year round.
She said her children sell flowers at markets in the capital, but never at restaurants at night.
“I cannot allow that because it is very dangerous. Also, if they stay that late at night, they cannot sleep enough…. Those children suffer at school because they cannot sleep enough,” she said.
Due to such factors, this work is considered to be among the worst forms of child labor, International Labor Organization Chief Technical Advisor M P Joseph said.
He said that of 1.5 million children working in Cambodia, about 250,000 work in what ILO deems the “worst” conditions. This puts child flower sellers in the same category as children who perform hard manual labor, work with dangerous machinery or deal with hazardous chemicals.
“By definition, children should not be working in the worst forms of child labor, because they affect the children’s development, growth, safety, health and morals,” Joseph said.
“For example, sleep deprivation is clearly a hazard that a child should not be exposed to in work. A child who is going to school the next day clearly cannot be productive.”
The ILO’s Convention on the Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor has been ratified by the National Assembly and the Senate and the government is looking to overhaul labor laws and has created an action plan to address the issue, Joseph said.
But until then, poorer families—who often have few resources and no land—say they will continue to send their children to the city each night.
Sok Seng, 53, said she relies on the whole family to work. At her home in Prek Thmei village, she, her two sons and her daughter weave flowers during the day to sell by night. She said they have done so ever since the family resettled from Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border in 1991.
Her daughter, Van Chanthol, 24, said work is not easy for an aging flower girl. These days, she sells her flowers at restaurants across the Chroy Changvar Bridge to a Cambodian clientele, she said.
“If the flower girl looks pretty she could sell more. Many clients at the restaurants across the bridge are impolite, and always harass the flower girls,” she said, naming one top-ranking government official as an especially egregious offender.
“I told him I am not a sex worker,” she recalled, noting that while clients may well believe otherwise, she has never indulged their advances.
Her 3-year-old son toddles half-naked around their house. If she can keep working, perhaps he will not have to, she said.
“If I stop, I would not have enough money to support my family—it is my career. It is not so bad to sell the flowers at the restaurants. It is a safe place for me,” she said.
Still, for most, flower selling is not a career but a last resort.
Nget Saroth, 34, lost his job at a casino a year ago. Since then his family of six were hard-pressed for income. Six months ago, he recruited his two oldest daughters, Chheng Hong, a vivacious 6-year-old with long curly hair and baby teeth, and Chheng Huor, a shy, mature 11-year-old, to sell roses and frangipani.
Together with their young cousin, the girls earn $7 to $12 per night, they said. They say their father waits outside each restaurant to watch them, so the only harassment they endure is that of restaurant owners who tell them to leave.
“I love selling flowers. Some nights I can sell 10 roses, sometimes I can sell more than 10. I can earn much money. It is not hard for me—I feel happy to sell the flowers,” the 11-year-old said.
Still, Nget Saroth is adamant that it is only a stopgap measure.
“I had to ask my daughters to help. If I can get another job then I will not allow them to sell the flowers anymore,” he said. “But I have been looking for jobs for a long time.”