​At the bottom of the heap | Phnom Penh Post

At the bottom of the heap


Publication date
16 February 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Bou Saroeun and Stephen O'connell

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Stumbling in boots many sizes too big, 12-year-old Bun Toeu races to keep near the

bulldozer's blade, scanning the churning garbage for desirable scrap.

Sixteen-year-old brickworker Lim Sophoen has never seen the inside of a school classroom

Wearing a discarded helmet for fun rather than protection, Toeu has no qualms about

dashing before the bulldozer's path to retrieve items he can sell for a few riel.

Flipping up his helmet's visor, Toeu examines a toy car he has plucked from the filth.

When he looks up to share news of his find, Toeu spots trouble.

"Run, the garbage is collapsing," he shouts to a group of children as the

bulldozer roars through the garbage mound on which they are working.

"Sometimes recyclers are accidentally buried, but we don't get killed,"

says Toeu with the weary nonchalance of a veteran.

For over a year he has worked as a recycler at Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey dump.

He left his home and school in Prey Veng to earn money for his family.

"It is a very dangerous job," he says. "I've been cut by broken glass

and needles. Sometimes I get sick from the smell."

Toeu wants to go back to school, but the family needs his income.

First day on the job for five-year-old Pel Youn at Stung Meanchey dump with his mother

Five-year-old Pel Youn looks confused and picks tentatively at a newly deposited

pile of garbage. His mother, working alongside Youn, said they had just arrived from

the countryside, and it was their first day at the dump.

"I feel so sorry for him, but there's no one to take care of him while I am

working. I hope he will be able to help me in a few months," she said.

Youn and Toeu are just two of an estimated 500 children working as recyclers at the

dump or on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Days at the dump are spent working in a haze of noxious smoke, dodging heavy equipment

and wading through everything from medical waste to cattle intestines and chemical-soaked


It seems a cruel life for anyone, let alone a child, but surveys show that many of

the young recyclers of Stung Meanchey take the risks and foul conditions in their

stride, viewing their work as a normal, acceptable way to earn a living.

Child labor is not unique to Cambodia. What is a fact of life in most developing

countries is often misunderstood and condemned outright by the developed world.

While there are those who would argue that no child should have to work, the reality

of poverty dictates that the survival of many families depends on the efforts of

all members regardless of age

Kosal, aged three, had both his arms ripped off when he fell into a brick-making machine, his aunt told the Post.

The International Labor Org-anization's (ILO) 1999 Cambodia Socio-economic Survey

showed that out of a total population of 11.6 million, there were 4.2 million children

between the ages of five to 17. About 700,000 of these children work.

An estimated 87 per cent of working children live and labor in rural areas in farming,

fishing, and forestry jobs

Cambodian culture traditionally values children who contribute work or earnings to

their families and it is considered normal for children to work alongside parents

to help and learn the family trade.

In 1993 Cambodia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Children which states

that children should not be exploited economically.

Cambodia's 1997 Labor Code allows for children between the ages of 12 and 15 to perform

work that is "not hazardous to their health and psychological development"

as long as it does not interfere with their education.

In 1999 Cambodia ratified ILO Convention 138 which allows member countries to declare

14 the minimum age as is the case for Cambodia.

But Cambodia has yet to ratify ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor

which aims to protect children from forced work in commercial sex, as well as in

other dangerous industries harmful to their physical, mental, and moral development.

Steve Gourley, Licadho's child rights consultant, said only about 4% of child labor

in Cambodia was employed in manufacturing, so most working children did not fall

under the ILO's exploitative and abusive "worst form" category.

For most of Cambodia's working children, the worst effect their employment had was

on their education - and consequently their ability to break out of the poverty cycle

- rather than a serious threat to their health and development, he said.

"There is often a large gap between the way working children and their communities

see their situation compared with the way outsiders view it," said Gourley.

"Because most child labor in Cambodia usually involves working with other family

members to provide for basic needs, it is part of a family's survival strategy. Efforts

to remove children from work or limit their involvement must be done with extreme

care as this is interfering with their means of survival."

But for those children involved in the "worst forms" of child labor, immediate

action needs to be taken to end their exposure to serious physical and psychological

abuse, he said.

World Vision's Child Labor Project Manager, Un Vuthy, said it was a complex issue

with no quick and easy solutions. World Vision is one of a number of NGOs assisting

the young workers of Stung Meanchey.

Vuthy said the child recyclers range in age from five to 16. Forty per cent had dropped

out of school and worked on average six hours a day, six days a week and earned no

more than a few thousand riel a day. Some 30 per cent of the children at the dump

claim their parents ordered them to work to earn money for the family.

"Most of the children and their parents do not see the value of education because

they prefer collecting and earning money, so they drop out of school, or do not attend

regularly," said Vuthy.

Children as young as four years old can be found picking through the garbage.

"I ask the parents why they take their small children to the dump, but they

say they go themselves. Some want to play with their friends there, or to look for

toys, but this is very dangerous," he said.

"Most parents are concerned about safety at the dump, but some are more concerned

about money rather than their children's safety."

Since 1997 four children had been crushed beneath bulldozers or trucks there, he


"The children who work do not wear protective clothes or shoes, and they are

frequently cut or burned, and have skin and breathing problems. The environment is

bad," said Vuthy

But while desperate poverty persisted in Cambodia, child labor would continue, he


"[Child labor] is a fact of life in a poor country, we cannot eliminate it quickly

- only step by step. In the meantime NGOs in partnership with Government authorities

can try to make it not so dangerous."

Vuthy said new families continually arrived at Stung Meanchey. They left the countryside

because of loss of land, or their families had grown too large for their rice fields

to support. While most stayed permanently, others went back to the provinces after

the dry season.

Since 1998 some 70 young recyclers have participated in World Vision's Children Income

Generation Program which aims to teach business development skills, and provide a

livelihood that allows child laborers a healthier alternative to the dump.

The program is now open to girls between the ages of 12 and 16, and the young entrepreneurs

can earn anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 riels a day selling cakes -baked at World

Vision's Stung Meanchey office - and soft drinks.

Vuthy said NGOs cannot simply stop children from working and make them go to school.

Though the program is proving successful at the dump, Vuthy doubts it can be replicated

elsewhere in Cambodia, where disposable incomes are not as high as in Phnom Penh.

"If children are poor and their families' economic situation is bad, then they

will just drop out of school. Children do not want to attend school if they are concerned

about earning money. That is why we set up this activity - they can learn skills

and earn money at the same time."

WV also runs a "non-formal" education program at Stung Meanchey where child

recyclers can learn reading, writing, dance and art. Those with good results are

encouraged to attend public schools.

Though poverty is the most significant factor contributing to Cambodia's child labor

problem, there are other important causes including a lack of understanding among

working children and their families about the importance of education, says Mar Sophea,

the ILO's National Program Manager.

Sophea said the way to address the problem was not to simply withdraw children from

the workplace and put them in schools.

"Their families still need money. We have to improve the livelihood of the families

through loan schemes and basic skills training to develop second incomes."

Brick making and salt gathering - two industries notorious for their use of child

labor - provide only seasonal employment, but Sophea said many of the families who

worked in these industries had no other employment during the off months and simply

lived off meager savings.

Sophea is concerned that some NGO programs that target child labor might actually

contribute to the problem.

"In some case [these programs] even encourage poor families to send their children

to the work place so they will get opportunities, and this approach is not correct."

Though Sophea acknowledges that these programs are trying to relieve suffering, he

believes they do not address the real problems.

It is the Government's responsibility to develop and implement a strategy to eliminate

the most dangerous forms of child labor," he said. "I really want the Government

to understand that [the NGOs and IOs] will not be here for 20 years to address this


Sophea said the Ministry of Social Affairs needs to develop a clear Labor Law enforcement

policy and do more to promote awareness raising among employers and working children.

Employers, who desired cheap workers unaware of their rights and easily intimidated

into performing tasks without complaint, create a demand for child labor. The priority

has been eliminating child labor from Cambodia's garment industry, but MoSA's labor

inspection department needs to expand it's regulatory priorities to dangerous sectors

such as brick-making.

At one of the many brick factories lining route 6A north of Phnom Penh, Chan Da,

16, slices clay into bricks and stacks them on a cart. Da left school after the third

grade to become a brick worker at the age of 13. The 3,500 riels he earns each day

is needed by his family.

"I want to go to back to school but I have to make money to help my parents.

It is hard work and I am scared of the machine. I don't like this job," he says.

Families often live in on-site accommodation at the brick factories, working as units.

Typically a family earns seven riel per brick produced.

Lim Sophoeun, 16 lives with her family at a brick factory. They have been employed

there for many years and make about 150,000 riel a month.

Sophoeun has never attended school. "I don't want to go to school because I

need to help my parents," she says while pulling a cartload of bricks to a spot

where they can dry in the sun.

Nhem Sitha, 15, came from Kampong Cham Province with his family to work at a brick

factory. He injured an arm when he fell into the belt of brick molding machine. Sitha's

brother was able to pull him free.

"I thought I was going to be killed. Now I am so scared of the belt."

Working all day under the hot sun and carrying heavy loads of dirt leaves him always

feeling sick and sore. Sitha says he wants an education, but does not want to increase

the economic burden for his family.

"I want to go back school. I will ask my mother to talk to the school director

to allow me to go back school next year, but I am afraid there will be no one to

help my parents," he says. Sophea believes many parents don't appreciate the

risks to which working children like Sitha are exposed.

"They don't understand the dangers children may face. They don't have any idea.

They don't recognize 'work' accidents. It is just normal life, a normal way of living

in this country."

Sophea said MoSA officials need to begin tackling safety problems with the owners

of brick-making factories.

"They can negotiate with employers to find reasonable work for children which

allows children to combine work with attending school - to increase piece rate of

families without the involvement of children. "But perhaps businessmen will

not like this option," he said.

The saltworks of Kampot are located on the coastal plain stretching from the base

of Phnom Bokor.

Soya Rath, 16, has labored in the salt pans for three years. Though Rath dreams of

quitting his job, it is not possible as he is the family's oldest son. "It is

very hard. Sometimes I have to start work at 4:00am to make more money. If my family

had enough rice and money to survive I would not work."

On a busy day, he will make about 100 trips from the salt pans to the warehouse,

bearing loads of salt in baskets balanced across his shoulder. He earns about 10,000

riel on a good day. "We are small, but stronger than city boys," says Rath.

Sometimes he sees adult laborers faint because they work hard and eat little, but

Rath is philosophical. "If we don't work we don't earn money."

Eight-year-old Nak Roeun has been gathering salt since she was only five. She works

without shoes and complains that sharp salt crystals cut into her feet.

"My feet bleed and get burned when I walk on the salt, but I need money. That's

why I like to work here. I need some money to pay for school fees and for candy."

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