THPONG DISTRICT, Kompong Speu province – Phnom Penh Sugar, among the most high-profile companies accused of using child labor in an industry beset by the practice, attempted to polish its image Thursday by hosting its third annual anti-child labor seminar here.
But as the company’s public relations director touted a work environment now free of child labor to local officials inside its Omlaing commune headquarters, workers in the fields just a few kilometers away told another story.
“We don’t have child labor,” Sin Satha, public relations director for Phnom Penh Sugar, said during the seminar, which was attended by commune, district and provincial officials. “It is against company policy.”
The company, owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, has faced accusations of land grabbing and child labor from NGOs and the opposition CNRP in recent years. The plantation is among a number of firms whose crops have been dubbed “blood sugar” in a campaign to lobby international firms to stop sourcing from companies accused of human rights abuses.
After the seminar, Mr. Satha acknowledged that “everyone is aware of the past,” referring to the company’s previous use of child labor, but said the practice had since been eliminated.
“It’s not quite that the company had intentions to hire children,” he said. “The company had so many subcontractors, so they had to be responsible. However, there were some small mistakes. Some children came along [to work] with their parents.”
Mr. Satha said children may still join their parents in the company’s sugarcane fields, but said this did not mean that they were working.
A harvester earns about $4 per day, according to Mr. Satha. Au Sophal, assistant head of administration and human resources for Phnom Penh Sugar, said there was no harvesting quota for workers, but that there was a bonus for particularly productive workers.
Following the sparsely attended seminar, workers harvesting sugarcane for Phnom Penh Sugar contradicted the message disseminated inside the company’s headquarters.
Thea, 52, who would only provide his given name out of fear for his job, said harvesters were paid per “bunch” of sugarcane stalks they chop down, encouraging some workers to bring their children along to work to make more money.
“It’s true that the kids come to work,” he said. “For me, I don’t bring my children to work here, but others who face severe poverty bring their children to help them.”
Phanna, who said he was 15 years old and also declined to give his full name, was playing with a group of teenagers on the plantation Thursday.
“I just stopped cutting sugarcane today because I was asked not to do it,” he said, declining to say who instructed him not to work Thursday.
“I see about four and five kids aged 12 to 13 working in the fields every day,” he added. “They take the truck with me [to work].”
The minimum legal age for employment is 15 according to the country’s Labor Law, which allows children as young as 12 to do light, nonhazardous work as long as it does not interfere with their schooling.
Vong Veng, 47, an Omlaing commune councilor for the opposition CNRP, said he worked in the fields for 10 days last month—the beginning of the harvesting season —to earn some extra money for his family.
“If you go deep inside the fields, you will see kids working,” he said. “At least 10 of them work on each block.”
Mr. Veng added that the company cleared the fields of child laborers Thursday before the “No to Child Labor” event began.
The seminar, he said, “is a way to hide their mistakes.”