19 June 2013.
Phnom Penh – When Ros Pagna was only 11 years old, she began working in a garment factory in Phnom Penh. The oldest of five siblings, Pagna left school at Grade 6, and using a fake ID, she got a job alongside her mother. Having learned how to use a sewing machine at a young age, Pagna was a skilled sticher and sewing t-shirts came easily to her. “My supervisor liked me and I was so happy to be earning money to help my family,” she says. On pay day, Pagna gave all of earnings, ranging from $60–$90, to her grandmother. “It was very difficult because we did not have much money and our family had no land.” When her grandmother became sick, it was the money that Pagna earned from working at the factory that helped pay for her medicine.
Days began very early, and before even setting out for the factory on her bicycle, Pagna would go to the market and bring home fresh fish for her grandmother to sell. At home, Pagna and her family—including her four siblings, her mother and grandmother—all lived in a one-room rental in Phnom Penh.
For two years, Pagna worked at garment factories, denied the opportunity to receive an education or to enjoy her childhood. But in 2009, her life took a dramatic change, when Ms. Malika Ok, a Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) monitor, came across several cases of suspected child labour in a factory during a standard monitoring visit. Pagna, then 13 years old, was one of these cases.
At the time, Malika noted that the girl looked very young, but when questioned at length about her age, Pagna stuck to her story and didn’t give away her real age. Pagna says she was “a bit scared” when Malika first questioned her about her age. “I was afraid that I would lose my job and would not be able to earn money.”
“I found Pagna to be very nice and very smart,” Malika says. “Even after an hour of questioning her she still didn’t reveal her real age.”
Nevertheless, Malika wasn’t satisfied that Pagna’s story checked out, and during follow-up discussions with the girl’s family, her grandmother eventually revealed Pagna’s real age. She had been working in the factory for five months at that time, but had moved from another factory where she had worked for more than a year and a half.
Upon confirming her to be underage, Malika met with the management at Pagna’s factory. Under an agreement between the ILO and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), underage workers are removed from the workplace and referred to vocational training. The factory continues to pay the worker’s wages and also bears the cost of vocational training until the worker reaches age 15. At that point, the worker has the option of returning to work in the factory. If a factory does not comply with this process, the case is referred to the Labour Ministry’s Child Labour Department.
Initially, Pagna’s factory didn’t want to take responsibility and pay for her to be educated. However, with BFC encouragement, both GMAC and the Ministry of Labour intervened and the factory eventually agreed to pay Pagna $60 per month while she attended school (minimum wage at that time was $50). Malika found a place for Pagna at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), a school run by a French NGO. At PSE, Malika visited Pagna every month to provide her payment from the factory and see how she was faring. Pagna’s grandmother also kept in touch with Malika to provide updates on the girl’s new life.
On 12 June 2013, the ILO will celebrate World Day Against Child Labour. According to the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, there are 215 million children caught in child labour worldwide, 14 million of whom work in the manufacturing sector, which includes garment and textile production. In Cambodia’s garment sector, Better Factories Cambodia has been highlighting the problem of child labour in their synthesis reports for some time, and as recently as mid-2012, reported 30 confirmed underage workers, coming from 10 factories (7% of those monitored).
Why does child labour persist as a problem in the country, despite numerous projects—including engagement from the ILO? In part, the garment industry’s rapid growth has made it a challenge for Human Resources (HR) staff to recruit enough workers to meet production demands, which can push factories to hire underage workers. The industry also has an extremely high turnover rate, not only of workers but also of office staff. New and inexperienced HR personnel may not know best practices to avoid recruiting child labourers. And the lack of a universal birth registration system in Cambodia and falsification of age-verifying documents can present significant obstacles to both factories and monitors in the detection of underage workers. As was the case with Pagna, poverty can also be a driver that pushes children into taking up work in order to help support their families.
In response to recent concerns about the increase in child labour in Cambodia’s garment factories, BFC has expanded its outreach, and in 2012 and 2013, the project gave a number of trainings on Methods to Prevent Child Labour at Workplaces. Over 350 participants representing 220 factories came together to learn about how to address the problem in their industry. A BFC Child Labour Guidance document, released in March 2012, outlines practical suggestions—such as interview practices to verify age documentation and lowering overall worker turnover—that factories can use to prevent child labour during recruitment and post recruitment, as well as how to remediate the situation when an underage worker is found.
Still, the problem of underage workers is one that will require ongoing attention and action. Child labour investigations and remediation are time and resource-consuming, and depend on the cooperation of factory management and others—including industry representatives, government, buyers and civil society—to be successful.
Pagna’s days are now filled with classes in computers, French and English, and with the school’s many leisure activities, such as basketball. She has been at PSE for four years, and will finish Grade 9 next year. Her hope is to stay another year in PSE’s specialised education in order to do an accountancy course. Ultimately, Pagna says she’d like to be a doctor or a medical provider. “I have liked the idea since I was young, as I want to be able to help people”.
Things have changed for the rest of her family as well. Pagna’s mother and grandmother now live beside a pagoda in Prek Tamak. Her grandmother says: “I was very happy when Pagna was removed from the factory. I had asked her to work because there was no opportunity for her to study, but when the chance came, I thought it was an opportunity for her.” In addition, PSE has provided clothes and study materials for Pagna’s siblings, two of whom, Sokda and Sokphe, have already joined her at school. Next year, PSE will welcome the youngest, Phanara.
Pagna is optimistic about her future and is hopeful that she can get a good job. “I believe in fortune…fortune brought me here, so let it be.”
(Originally published by Better Factories Cambodia.)