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Protecting workers and children in Cambodia

This week thousands of workers from textiles factories took to the streets of Cambodia as part of a week-long strike. Garment workers in Cambodia typically earn the minimum monthly wage of 56 dollars. With double-digit inflation threatening their ability to survive on this wage, some workers and union leaders are unhappy with a proposed 5 dollar increase.

The garment industry is Cambodia’s third largest revenue earner after tourism and agriculture and high-street names such as Gap, Levi and Marks and Spencer order their clothes from Cambodian factories. Since some of the garment unions have already accepted the 5 dollar increase, these international buyers will be hoping the strike does not gain wide support and most factories in Phnom Penh will operate as normal.

Certainly much work has been done in Cambodia towards fostering good working conditions in the factories. Through a policy known as labour linkage, large international buyers are assured that garments are not being made by oppressed workers or by children.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) co-ordinates factory inspections in Cambodia to make sure premises are meeting the necessary obligations. Founded in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, the ILO (based in Geneva) aims to bring “decent work and livelihoods, job-related security and better living standards to the people of both poor and rich countries”.

The ILO also works to reduce child labour rates. Access to education has greatly improved in Cambodia; in 2005, 91% of young children were enrolled in primary school compared to 75% of children in 2005. Through the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the ILO has removed or prevented 18,280 chidlren from being used as child labourers and ensured they were enrolled in schools. The IPEC programme has also sponsored schemes to decrease the reliance of poor families on income from children. One such scheme has involved setting up a savings group in a small village in southern Cambodia, where families can access micro finance and borrow money at a low 3 per cent interest rate.

But despite all the good work, according to the ILO 313,000 children are still trapped in the worst forms of exploitation in Cambodia, in drug trafficking or prostitution. And many children still spend long hours working to support their families, like 10-year old Leap, who offers elephant rides to tourists and has never attended school. Leap is lucky to earn 2 dollars a day, and yet if she stops work she says her mother and brothers will go hungry. In another part of Phnom Penh, the ILO’s representative found 7-year old Doung sifting through rubbish along the river bank, looking for plastic to recycle. Since his father died, Doung is the sole provider for his mother and her new baby

The Cambodian Government, along with the ILO, has vowed to identify and rehabilitate children scavenging along the river of the capital and to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by the end of 2012. These new initiatives will hopefully mean that children like Leap and Doung do not fall through the net and have the chance of a childhood.

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