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Worldwide, child labor prevents children from obtaining an education to help escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In Cambodia, the issue of child labor is prevalent in both the rural and urban areas. There are numerous children in Cambodia that are either working full time or working and attending school. Not educating children creates a lack of human capital within the country, continuously perpetuating the cycle of child labor. Providing children with an education allows them to gain the necessary tools to create solutions for themselves to escape poverty.
Poverty is the main reason these children work. If their families had enough income, there would be no need for the children to participate in such labor as hawking, begging, or working on the family farm or in the family business. Of course, this is a complex subject matter as poverty causes child labor, and education allows people to escape the poverty cycle. However, in order for a child to attend school, there must be enough money for the family to survive.
Overcoming the challenges of child labor requires a multi-dimensional approach including social changes, policy changes, and a reduction of reliance on foreign aid. Cambodian society does not condemn the use of child labor which allows it to continue. On the policy side, it is not that Cambodia does not have the laws in place prohibiting child labor. It does not implement or enforce the laws which perpetuate the problem. Furthermore, heavy dependence on foreign aid complicate perpetuates the situation. Donor countries provide money for a few years to set up an education program only to leave a few years later. The program then falls apart, as Cambodia does not have the financial or technical resources to keep such programs operational.
Overview / Background
Despite the attention this subject has received from the international community, the issue of child labor in Cambodia is still a problem. A child forced into the labor sector instead of being able to obtain an education goes against basic, essential human rights. A national survey on child labor found that "an estimated 52.0 percent of 7-14 year-olds, over 1.4 million children in total, were economically active in 2001" (Kim, 1). Additional surveys also found that most of the children that were economically active were also attending school, but labor posed negative effects on their schooling and increased dropout rates. Girls were also found to have higher dropout rates, if they were attending at all, especially if they were the eldest child and needed to take care of their siblings. According to a study by UNICEF, the average working child in Cambodia makes around one U.S. dollar a day which equates to be about "28 percent of the total household labor income" (UNICEF, ii).
There are two categories of child labor that will be discussed. Child labor is defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as any type of work that distracts from or prohibits a child from obtaining an education. This definition includes working for the family such as in a family business or on the family farm, or earning any type of money from selling goods, to name a few examples. The second type of child labor outlined by the ILO is known as the worst forms of child labor, and these forms are outlined in Article 3 of the ILO Convention Number 182. The worst forms include any type of slavery, prostitution or pornography, using a child for illegal activities, or any hazardous work (What is child labor). Both forms of child labor exist within Cambodia. Especially within the urban, tourist areas, children are sent by their parents to work on the streets by selling items or begging. This opens them up to the possibility of other harmful situations that may occur without any type of adult supervision.
Cambodia has many child labor laws currently on the books. Some of these laws include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1992) and two International Labor Organization Conventions (Number 138 in 1999 on the minimum age and Number 182 in 2005 on the worst forms of child labor). Internationally, the minimum age of employment is 18 years old. However, the Cambodia government decided to set its own minimum employment age at 15 years old and includes the exception that children between the ages of 12 and 14 are able to do menial work as long as it does not interfere with their schoolwork.
While such laws are currently in place, there are major gaps in these laws, and they are not strongly enforced. The current laws discuss formal agreements between an employer and employee; however, there are currently no laws that deal with informal employment of children. A great deal of these situations either takes place on family farms or through hawking and begging. The other major problem is that these laws are not being enforced. Within the government, the department assigned to enforcing the laws is the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (DOL). Because the laws govern the formal employment relationships, when it comes to children working in family businesses or selling goods on the street, the government has no legal right to intervene on behalf of Cambodian law. Unfortunately, the most serious occurrences of child labor take place in the informal business sectors. While having such laws on the books may be steps in the right direction, they are useless if there is no method to ensure compliance. There are numerous reasons for the disregard for child labor laws. Some of it stems from social and cultural perceptions, and some of it is the result of a lack of political will of enforcing the laws.
In regards to the implementation of the worst forms of child labor, such as pornography, prostitution, and child trafficking, it is the responsibility of the police. However, the enforcement of the law also tends to be quite limited, as there is a huge market for sexual exploitation of children. According to a study by the U.S, only sex foreigners were convicted for sexual crimes against children in 2007 in Cambodia. This should come as no surprise, as in 2012 Cambodia ranked 157 out of 174 corrupt countries by Transparency International.
The issue of eliminating child labor completely, or at least to negligible figures, is an important factor for reducing overall poverty. While the government has been taking steps to end child labor within the country, it is important to realize that there are several cultural and historical issues that come into play when trying to understand why certain policies have not worked.
In terms of historical factors, Cambodia has a recent traumatic past with the genocide of the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge party from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge took the name Democratic Kampuchea and attempted to rebuild and redesign Cambodia to the perfect utopian society. The party, under Pol Pot, shut down entire cities and moved the people out to the countryside. They used children and young adults to carry out crimes such as execution or torture. Part of the plan was to create a "'Year Zero'â€¦by using children as the basis of a new society without memory" (Miles and Thomas, 2). The educated people within society were especially persecuted. During the short time that the Khmer Rouge ruled, it is "estimated that more than one and a half million of Cambodia's 8 million people were killed either by starvation, overwork, disease or execution" (Miles and Thomas,2). Then, in 1979, China invaded Vietnam which sent the Cambodian people to refugee camps at the Thailand border. Tragically, the Khmer Rouge continued to rule within the refugee camps "supported by China with a degree of compliance from the US and the United Nations" (Miles and Thomas, 3). Between 1991 and 1993, the U.N. deployed a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia in order to support both development and democracy.
Due to Cambodia's recent history, it is apparent why the older generation does not trust the government and why education is not high on the list of priorities. The entire society was decisively pulled apart and left in shambles.
Many developing countries have weak governments that are unable to provide citizens services such as universal education. Cambodia is one of these countries. While Cambodia may have many initiatives and regulations on paper, these are not necessarily enforced or practiced, as the country lacks the ability or will to do so. Some of these legislative issues stem from outsiders helping to develop laws without having a true understanding of Cambodians or their culture. Just because one such policy was implemented in one country does not mean that it will work in another. According to Kim's study (2011), Cambodia's history also appear to play a major role in the quality level of employees within the government. Many of the people now employed are not capable of implementing or following through with such government policies as the Khmer Rouge had wiped out the education system.
Getting children off of the streets and keeping them in the classroom requires multi-dimensional approaches including making social changes for parents to realize the importance of education, policy changes to implement enforcement of laws while closing the gaps in legislation, and reducing Cambodia's reliance on foreign aid by incorporating other alternative means into the country. These recommendations are aimed at child labor in general but more specifically at those not engaged in the sex industry.
Social changes within the civil society need to be addressed. The longer this issue is ignored or overlooked, the longer it will continue to be an obstacle in providing education for children. This is the first and most important recommendation. Numerous studies have been conducted globally that conclude education is more important than work in families where the parents have also obtained an education. If education is not important to the parent or guardian, then it will not be forced. The more civil societies demand education for their children, the higher the probability they will receive it. Additionally, the more education is socially accepted, the more the communities will pull together to ensure their children receive an education. If money is stressed more than knowledge, the problem of child labor will continue to exist. In order to make social changes, it is important to have a native Cambodian come up with a way to show how child labor is undesirable to the people. The only way to effectively put this plan into action is to strike a nerve in the Cambodian psyche. While it is possible to study how other countries have effectively changed the perception of child labor, a person with insight on the culture and society will know how to target this message. The social changes will require a campaign to disseminate the information on a grassroots level.
Some of the drawbacks to making such social changes are that it takes time and is not easily quantifiable in absolute terms. Changing the minds of the people does not happen overnight and can take years for people to adapt. It is also difficult to measure social changes in the same quantifiable terms as measuring changes in expenditures. Creating campaigns to target social issues are complicated and require thought-out goals, targets, and fieldworkers. Another drawback is that no matter how hard the campaign works, there is no guarantee that it will be successful in changing people's minds.
Policy changes to reduce child labor and increase primary education must be considered. While numerous laws are officially in place right now in Cambodia, either through the ratification of international legal documents or through Cambodia's own legal frameworks, these laws are not being enforced or implemented. As a result, just because the official law states that children under a certain age cannot work, it does not mean it doesn't happen when there is no one to punish those who ignore the law. Additionally, the laws that Cambodia has that address child labor do not touch on the issue of informal child labor, as discussed previously.
The government branches need to unite in order to implement the laws. A study done by Kim (2011) interviewed government officials only to find that they wouldn't interfere in other policy areas concluding
"rigid demarcation of sectorial responsibilities - viewing child labour as more of a labour and relations problem - also seemed to contribute to the passive approach of Cambodian education policy makers to its adverse impact on the achievement of universal basic education" (500).
This clear delineation of certain government responsibilities only widens the child labor gap. In order for the branches to work together, there must be a unified decision that while each branch may only have enough financial or human resources to cover one area of government, intergovernmental communication can prove beneficial to inform others of what is taking place.
Enforcement of these polices means a great political will, a better understanding of the issue, and the need for more resources. Only once a social change regarding how child labor is seen is made, will a greater political move forward. If society as a whole does not see the issue as problematic, the government will take more of a sideline approach to intervening and pushing its policies on the people. The government must also understand why exactly child labor is taking place within the country. These reasons are a combination of society's acceptance of the issue mixed with the result of poverty. In order to tackle a problem, it must be fully understood. Enforcement also means the requirement of more resources to punish the rule breakers. This is a drawback to the recommendation. However, once those who break the law are punished for their crimes, the more people will be unwilling to continue breaking the law as they will not want to face the consequences.
Cambodia currently relies on a large percentage of foreign aid to administer its governmental, procedural, and educational institutions. While foreign aid can be necessary for countries to ensure people receive basic goods, it can also cause complications for a country in the long run. One of the largest complaints that many studies discussed about education dealt with foreign aid. Foreign countries or foreign non-governmental organizations have previously set up educational programs within Cambodia and brought the necessary funding and human resources to establish the program. However, once the four (or however long the program was scheduled to last) years are up, the donor country leaves the program without any of the necessary tools to continue. The same problem occurs with NGOs. Once funding happens to dry up, the NGOs are no longer able to fund the programs they originally introduced into the country. When a country depends too heavily on outside sources for implementing its education policies and constructing educational projects, it is left unable to provide for its own citizens once the outside sources leave due to their own interests or obligations. Additionally, if a country relies too much on outside sources creating the programs or policies, the actual needs of its citizens may not be met. While one educational structure may have achieved great success within poor, urban areas within the United States, that same program cannot be used in Cambodia because the two countries have completely different social and cultural backgrounds. Additionally, the people within the country may not feel as though the foreign aid projects were their own and "despite what donor agencies often claim about building developing countries' governments' ownership of development projects, they felt they were not really given the chance to develop and exercise it" (Kim, 501). Therefore, when foreign aid projects are introduced to Cambodia, it is extremely important to make sure that the Cambodian people exercise a great deal of input into where this assistance should be directed. After all, the people who truly know what the problems are within a country and how to solve them are the citizens.
Transparency and accountability are vital when it comes to foreign aid. It helps to reduce corruption that takes place and helps to show the people where the money is going. This transparency will encourage the Cambodians to trust the government which is incredibly important since there was such a tragic past under the abuse of power of the Khmer Rouge.
Instead of relying so heavily on foreign aid, Cambodia should integrate more micro-finance and micro-credit programs within the country. While there are currently programs in Cambodia, spreading the information about using these tools to help the poor will be beneficial. Many microfinance institutions also offer a form of micro-insurance which is important in places like Cambodia. Micro-insurance could have a big impact on whether or not a child is forced to work. For example, perhaps the head of the household, who normally, brings home the income, falls ill. He or she is unable to provide for the family any more, forcing the other members of the house, including the children, to go out and find work. However, with micro-insurance, the head of the household has the ability to recover without being forced to send others out to earn money. Unfortunately, it must be understood that just because one type of micro-finance program worked in Indonesia, it may not work in Cambodia because the people and the cultures are completely different.
Overall, arguments can be made against reducing child labor in Cambodia with the rationale that if the children are educated, there is no place for them to go as there is a lack of jobs in the country. However, this argument can be refuted, as the more children are educated, the more the possibility for jobs will open to them. The people of Cambodia understand their country the best and are keenly aware of the country's challenges. Once people are provided with the skills to problem solve, they will be able to provide for their country.
Obviously, social changes cannot and will not take place overnight. There must be a clear and methodical implementation of educating parents that the best thing for their children is for them to attend school and not be involved in economic activities that distract them from their education.
The lack of enforcement is a major obstacle that needs to be overcome. Because child labor is so widespread in Cambodia, it is not an easy task to enforce. Enforcement should not just be left up to the government. It is recommended that enforcement, or at least the monitoring of these laws, should occur on a grassroots level. Once it is socially acceptable that child labor is not beneficial for the child, community councils or other local community groups can act as the eyes and ears for the government to ensure implementation of child labor laws. Besides on a grassroots level, businesses should also come together to monitor the working conditions of others to confirm child labor laws are not being broken. The use of institutions to safeguard child laws could also prove useful. These institutions could be societal or governmental. Setting up a multilevel, multi-sector implementation and enforcement structure could greatly reduce child labor as it provides an all-encompassing approach.
Foreign aid cannot be reduced all at once. If that were to happen, the country would have no financial resources leaving it worse off than before. It also needs to be a joint effort by the international community. The United Nations could be the platform where this recommendation is put forth and then implemented. It also must be a conscious decision by the Cambodia government. If they don't understand that it is for the good of their own people, then they could see it as the international world abandoning them.