A group of opposition lawmakers have written to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urging action against a sugar factory owned by a ruling party official accused of exploiting child labor and grabbing land from villagers.
Six Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) parliamentarians sent a letter dated Jan. 23 through National Assembly President Heng Samrin, calling on Hun Sen to “take serious measures” against the Phnom Penh Sugar Co., which runs the factory in central Cambodia’s Kompong Speu province.
The company belonging to ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat has been at the center of a long-running dispute with villagers who say they were offered inadequate compensation for land they had farmed for years which was taken over by the sugar project.
“Ly Yong Phat's factory is using child labor from workers who are under 18 years of age,” reads the letter, demanding that Hun Sen take actions to “improve working conditions in this factory, which is abusing the rights of children.”
The International Convention on Child Labor, which Cambodia is subject to, defines a child as anyone below the age of 18 years and spells out the basic human rights that children should enjoy, including the right to protection from economic exploitation.
“The government must take serious measures against the factory,” the letter said.
It also called on the sugar company to resolve its land dispute with the more than 1,000 villagers in Kompong Speu province.
Member of Parliament Mu Sochua, who described the company as a “’blood sugar’ producer known for encroaching on villagers' land,” said she and her fellow SRP lawmakers had discovered that the factory was employing underage children through an “investigation,” without providing further details.
“We must prevent child labor. I request that the company allow local commune officials to inspect the factory,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“I will write to Okhna [honorific] Ly Yong Phat to allow lawmakers to inspect the factory," she said.
Staffers from Hun Sen's cabinet refused to comment on the letter from the SRP lawmakers when contacted by RFA’s Khmer Service.
Child labor allegations
A villager who lives near the sugar factory confirmed to RFA that the company had been hiring children “to work on the plantation … clearing sugar cane.”
“There are children aged 12-14 years old working. They drop out of school [to work there]," said the villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union President Ath Thon said that villagers were bringing their children to work with them because they do not have enough money to send them to school and do not want them to stay at home by themselves.
He said that the villagers are unable to raise money for schooling because they no longer have their own land to cultivate, adding that the children would accompany their parents to the factory to help earn additional income for the household.
“The children are forced to work alongside their parents because the villagers don't have any plantation [land for themselves],” Ath Thon said.
"We shouldn't condone development using child labor,” he said.
Ly Yong Phat could not be reached for comment about the child labor allegations.
Some 1.5 million Cambodians under the age of 18 are forced to work, with about 20 percent of them engaged in hazardous jobs such as spraying pesticides or working in brick factories, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Many school aged children stay at home since their parents cannot afford to send them to school. Instead, they earn around U.S. $0.50 cents to $3.00 a day by hauling, fishing, or selling foods on the street to help the family.
The Cambodian government and the ILO have set a goal of ending the “worst” forms of child labor in the country by 2016.
More than 1,000 villagers in Kompong Speu claim they have lost around 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) since the government awarded the Phnom Penh Sugar Company an 8,000 hectare (19,770 acre) concession in 2010.
They also charge that the company had illegally seized their land and forced them to move to higher ground, where they are unable to grow crops.
The land dispute has been dragging on for two years without any signs of an imminent resolution.
Another sugar plant formerly owned by Ly Yong Phat in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province is also involved in a land dispute with more than 450 families who say they were forcibly evicted from their homes and lost farmland to make way for the development.
Residents say the eviction involved beatings and warning shots fired by police. Ly Yong Phat has since sold his stake in the plantation and factory to Taiwanese partner company Ve Wong.
Opposition party members have called on European countries not to purchase sugar from the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, calling the product “blood sugar.”
Last October, the European Parliament called for a probe into possible human rights abuses by Cambodian companies exporting to Europe and linked to questionable land concessions.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.