Police and human rights workers are investigating claims that a Chinese-owned sugarcane plantation in Preah Vihear province has been employing child workers since December.
Oeu Bunthany said the Y Heng Company fired her on Saturday after she complained to local police that up to 20 children between the ages of 10 and 15 were working there since December. Y Heng managed the plantation for Chinese company Lan Feng. Ms. Bunthany filed the same complaint Monday with Adhoc, the human rights group.
“I saw the children work on the sugarcane plantation every day,” Ms. Bunthany said. “After I gave this information to district police, the Y Heng Company fired me and warned me to stop talking about this. So this morning, I filed a complaint at the Preah Vihear province office of Adhoc.”
Adhoc provincial coordinator Lor Chann said he received the complaint and would investigate.
According to the complaint, he said, “those children were ordered to cut sugarcane and collect dry wood on the plantation. Civil society organizations think this is exploitative child labor and is against international conventions, the anti-trafficking law and the labor law, too.”
The Labor Law sets the minimum age for employment at 15, but allows children as young as 12 to do light work deemed non-hazardous so long as it does not interfere with their school attendance.
Prang Thida, the head of anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection for the provincial police, said her officers visited the plantation Monday morning and found about a half-dozen children between 12- and 13-years-old at work.
“I think this is against the law because these children are getting paid the same as the adults,” she said. “We do not know the details, so we will investigate more. If there is illegal activity we will take legal action.”
The plantation foreman, Chheang Leang Hour, admitted that about four or five children were working in the fields but defended the practice because they were only doing light work, such as carrying sugarcane sticks, and because the families needed the extra money.
“I think this is not a problem because we pity these children, who live with their parents or aunts, and because their work is not difficult,” he said. “We think that we are all Khmer, and we don’t think we are exploiting the children.”
He declined to comment on how or why Ms. Bunthany left the plantation.
Lan Feng is one of five adjacent plantations owned by the same Chinese parent company. Local farmers accused the company of encroaching on their land last year. Sugar plantations across the country are regularly accused of such land grabs, which push the affected families deeper into poverty.