08 Jan
  • By Steps Together

Cambodia’s Child Labor Crisis: Stepping out of the Cycle

Written by: Steps Together
Edited by: Matt Ahlstedt

Dust blowing, garbage overflowing, incessant honking, hands reaching, fast walking, cigarettes burning – arriving into Cambodia is more than just chaos. It’s the kind of chaos that overwhelms you and grounds you at the same time. Taking a minute to soak in the madness, observing the faces passing by, toothless grins and looks of despair; it’s a country awash in emotion. Cambodia has suffered in a way that most of us can scarcely imagine and, now, the only thing they can do is try to rebuild.


Steps Together: one of several burial sites – bracelets represent lost lives due to the genocide

The Khmer Rouge and the mass genocide of 2 million Cambodian people left many children without parents. The young generation of people that were left were forced to rebuild their lives with hardly any knowledge on how to do so. These young people–dealing with conditions of extreme poverty–had no choice but to enter survival mode. Many of the effects of that hardship remain. Chief amongst them, is a child labor and human trafficking crisis. While the Cambodian government has taken some initiative in reducing the number of child laborers, over 400,000 children are still involved in the workforce and many of them are working in physically dangerous conditions.

Even though a large number of children are working in factories, child labor is more than working in brick kilns, sweatshops, and cocoa plantations. Among the hustle and bustle in Poipet, the major border crossing town in western Cambodia, there are children everywhere. They are selling goods, begging, and rifling through garbage bags for bottles. They are pushing and pulling carts filled to the brim with goods they’ve accumulated to sell or trade. Many of these children are missing out on the opportunity to attend school because they weren’t given a choice. They were born into a life of hardship. They have never known anything different. Filling giant bags with bottles and dragging them, miles through town, is a way of life to them. It’s ingrained in their minds that THIS is living.


VOA News report : Phnom Penh, “Group Works to Reduce Child Labor in Cambodia”

Parents want what’s best for their children, no matter what. The definitions of “best” often vary across cultures, but that fundamental truth remains. The majority of the children working in Cambodia are helping their families for little to no money at all. Some children are working in brick kilns trying to help their parents pay back the debt they owe. It is common for Cambodian factories to offer advanced payments or loans to families of factory workers in exchange for repayment in hours worked in the factory.  The money given–typically used to pay for a wedding, a birth, or medical emergencies–is often substantial, and families end up borrowing money that they are unlikely to be able to pay back in a single generation, if at all. These loans help continue a vicious cycle of poor working conditions, unfair wages, and desperate labor, causing families to use their children for extra help. There is no more or less love in a Cambodian household than any other, but the economic state of the nation often forces parents to choose between what’s best for their child and what’s best for the family. The cost of basic survival sometimes leaves families with little say in which choice they make.


The Phnom Penh Post: “It’s time to put an end to ‘hidden’ child labor”

Physical labor is hard in and of itself, but especially so when your body is already burdened with severe hunger and malnutrition. Families in Cambodia are struggling to put food on the table. Without proper nutrition, Cambodian workers cannot possibly have the strength needed to work in the conditions they do, day in and day out. Unfortunately, children that are ‘lucky’ enough to avoid working physically straining jobs, are left with an alternative life out walking the streets.

screen-shot-2018-01-03-at-16-30-31 –  ““Protecting Children From Child Labor”

This doesn’t have to be Cambodia’s reality. This vicious cycle, can be broken. Sometimes the world’s problems seem far too great to make any significant changes, however, a few small steps in the right direction can make a world of difference. Prioritizing access to education, is a vital first step. Making it easier for families to send their children to school and creating incentive programs to keep them in school past 5th grade, will build a generation of children that can live a sustainable life, outside of poverty.


Steps Together: Ta Kam Village Primary School, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Staying in school will help them develop the skill sets they need to be a valuable asset to society in the future. Classroom time will introduce them to an alternative life, distinct from the familiar labor in kilns and on streets. Consistent, accessible, and high quality education can change the shape and function of a country and its people  Providing that education to the children of Cambodia will give them the chance to control and restructure the nation’s broken economic and social systems, and design a more dynamic future for the next generation to build upon. They deserve that opportunity, because all children do.

Photo citations:

Bussi, Maurizio. “It’s Time to Put an End to ‘Hidden’ Child Labour.”

Phnom Penh Post
“Protecting Children from Child Labor .
Voa. “Group Works to Reduce Child Labor in Cambodia.”

logoSteps Together is a non-profit organization that believes every person has the right to receive an education. We are passionate in learning about different communities and how our services can impact their needs. Our mission is to provide underprivileged communities with the necessary materials in order for all people to receive an education they deserve. By doing this we hope to provide a stepping stone for these people to help them build confidence to live a self-sustaining life.