About CDWS

Background on child labour in Cambodia

The Royal Government of Cambodia has been demonstrating its commitment to combat the worst forms of child labour by promoting children’s education and improving the living conditions of Cambodian individuals. It has adopted laws and regulations to eliminate the exploitative forms of child labour in general and the worst forms of child labour in particular. Cambodia signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in September 1992 and ratified it in July 1993. Article 48 of the country’s Constitution, also adopted in 1993, explicitly states, “The State shall: protect the rights of children as stipulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular the right to life, education, protection during wartime and protection from economic and sexual exploitation.”

In 1995, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) began providing assistance to Cambodia. As a first step, an action programme that aimed at strengthening the capacity of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSALVY) to address policy issues related to child labour was developed and implemented. The Government has sought initiatives that are preventive in nature, focusing on the flow of children from rural to urban areas. In January 1997, the National Assembly adopted a new labour code, which set the minimum age of employment at 15 (Article 177). It stipulated that children aged between 12 and 15 can engage in light work provided that: i) the work is not hazardous to their health and psychological development; and ii) the work will not affect their school attendance or their participation in vocational training programmes approved by competent authorities. It is further stated in Article 181 that minors, whatever their sex, younger than 18 and still under the responsibility of their parents or guardians, cannot engage in any type of work without the prior approval of their parents or guardians. The provisions on child labour in the current labour code are largely in line with ILO Convention No. 138, ratified by the Government on 23 August 1999. In the current code, the minimum age of employment or work is set at “the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case not less than 15 years”. For light work the Convention sets the minimum age at 13 and for hazardous work at 18. However, in exceptional cases, which are specified in the Convention, the basic minimum age may be lowered to 14, ages 12-14 for light work and age 16 for hazardous work.

A sub-decree issued in November 1995 established the Cambodian National Council for Children to serve as “the coordinating body for advocacy, planning, monitoring and implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child”. The MoSALVY plays a lead role in this council, which consists of relevant ministries and local institutions. The prime minister presides over the council. 

As the global debate on child labour intensified in recent years, various government agencies and NGOs expressed concern regarding the possibility that child labour and related issues may become a serious problem in the country in the foreseeable future. Cambodia is not different from many other countries in the region in that poverty, rapid growth of the population, rural-urban migration and weaknesses in the education system remain troubling challenges. These unfortunately all are factors that encourage the supply of child labour.

Child labour is regarded as that which is exploitative or unhealthy to the growth and well-being of a young person. Child labour has a negative impact on health, interferes with education and therefore creates obstacles to the child worker’s full and effective participation in society. It also involves the use of labour at low levels of productivity. It can prevent children from acquiring skills and knowledge to increase their productivity and thus causes a loss of economic potential to the society. Other negative effects include injuries and psychological stress from working in difficult and unhygienic conditions. 

Child domestic labour in Cambodia                      

In several cultures in Asia, as well worldwide, children are still regarded as very much under the control and guidance of their parents. The concept that children have “independent rights” is an unfamiliar one. For economic and even social reasons, or not having a true understanding of the CDW situation, society and even many parents of children in domestic labour “accept” exploitative circumstances or even child servitude. Often employers of child domestic workers are seen as looking after them and providing them with food and shelter. That child domestic workers toil behind closed doors, in the private domains of citizens, adds to the difficulty of understanding the situation, or addressing it.

The fragmented data on the problem in Cambodia has contributed to an emotional debate on the subject in which some people tend to downplay the magnitude while some others exaggerate it. A number of surveys have been conducted regarding child labour by the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) and the Ministry of Planning, such as the socio-economic surveys of 1993-1994, 1996 and 1999, and the Cambodia Child Labour Survey 2001 (CCLS). The CCLS was the first household-based survey on child labour. Unfortunately, none of these surveys explicitly estimated the numbers of child domestic workers in Cambodia.

Objectives of the CDW baseline survey                           

The baseline survey also is seen as important for relevant government, non-government and civil society organizations in supporting the Child Labour Unit of the MoSALVY in developing CDW policies and guidelines.
Specific objectives in conducting the baseline survey entailed: Providing relevant information regarding the household, especially where a child domestic worker is employed. General information regarding: (i) housing aspects, such as house ownership, household appliances; (ii) household members, by age, sex, marital status, relationship to the head of household head, occupations; and (iii) household expenditure, medical care and the household head’s or other respondent’s general knowledge and understanding of child rights.

- Providing detailed information on child domestic workers regarding siblings, parents/guardians, and employer; education and health; living and workplace conditions; history of injuries; wages; and perspective.
- Strengthening the institutional capacity of NIS in collecting, processing and analysing child labour data through in-office training and ILO-IPEC technical assistance in all aspects of surveying - from methodology, sampling and questionnaire design to analysis and dissemination of results.

Scope of the child domestic worker survey                           

This household-based child domestic worker survey covered all seven districts in Phnom Penh and involved 125 villages randomly selected as primary sampling units (PSUs), and 2,500 households randomly selected as secondary sampling units (SSUs). Because of the random selection, not all of the 2,500 households employed a child domestic worker. A total of 293 CDWs were identified and interviewed in this survey. 

Data collection

The 125 villages (PSUs) selected in the first stage were chosen based on the 1998 general population census, which identified non-slum and slum areas.

The second stage involved household sample selection (SSUs). Large villages with more than 200 households were divided into segments. A segment was then chosen randomly and a complete listing of households was prepared. The procedure involved creating a map of the village where physical boundaries and the location of each household were sketched. Canvassing entailed a systematic covering of the entire village following a prescribed path of travel in order to make sure that all housing units were accounted for. 

Reason for Working                                                                                                                             

Poverty and being orphaned (having no parents or close relative/guardian) are the two most common reasons given by CDWs to explain why, in the past five years, they left their province or family home to work in Phnom Penh. Other major reasons included the desire for a better opportunity for an education and migration together with the family. 

The survey researchers estimate that 3,119 CDWs, or 11.2 percent of all the estimated 27,950 CDWs, have parents/guardians living in Phnom Penh. Of them, 1,718 CDWs are in non-slum areas and 1,401 CDWs in slum areas, and 48 percent (1,499) are males and 52 percent (1,620) are females.

While more girls (47.9 percent) than boys (12.1 percent) said they had moved to Phnom Penh and sought out domestic work because of the need for employment, more boys (65.6 percent) than girls (15.5 percent) said they had moved to work as domestic workers so that they could have educational opportunities.

Some 40.5 percent of the CDWs in non-slum areas want to be employed, followed by 33 percent who work as domestic workers with the hope of having a chance to continue their education. The reasons are similar in slum areas, though of smaller proportion: 28.8 percent want to be employed while 23.6 percent want to continue their education.

                  Table:Number of CDWs whose parents/guardians were satisfied that   theirchild was
                              working, by reason and domain     

Reason Phnom Penh Non-slum areas Slum areas
Number % Number % Number %
Total 3,119 100.0 1,718 100.0 1,401 100.0

 Family needs more income

405 13.0 101 5.9 304 21.7

 Child has reached working age

482 15.5 291 16.9 192 13.7

 Parents cannot pay for child's education

794 25.5 561 32.7 233 16.6

 Child does not want to go to school

42 1.3 42 2.4 0 0.0

 Child gets meals being employed

606 19.4 128 7.5 478 34

 School is too far, so better off to work

33 1.1 0 0.0 33 2.4


757 24.3 595 34.6 162 11.6


Estimated CDWs in Phnom Penh 

Although children working in Cambodia as child-minders, maids, cooks, cleaners, gardeners and general house help are a familiar practice, not all of them would be considered by their employer as a domestic worker. This is partly due to a lack of general understanding of who is a CDW. It also relates to employers’ fear of legal action. But there are employers who are related by extended family to a child working in the household and thus do not regard that young person as a domestic employee. This survey shows that more than half (60 percent) of the estimated CDWs were reported as related to the employer (niece, nephew or other). In the context of the realities of socio-economic relations in Cambodia, and in consultation with the Ministry of Labour, the survey researchers adopted a broad concept in defining child domestic worker. 

With this broad definition, the researchers estimate there are 27,950 CDWs in Phnom Penh, which constitutes almost 10 percent of all children in that age-group (7-17 years). Of these, some 41 percent are boys and around 59 percent are girls. By age-group breakdown, most CDWs are aged 10-14 and 15-17, with females in the 15-17 age group accounting for 38.6 percent of all CDWs and males in the 10-14 age group accounting for 21.7 percent of the total.

By district breakdown within Phnom Penh, the largest number of CDWs (36 percent) work in Russey Keo; and within that district there were many more boys than girls: 5,904 males compared to 4,257 females.

For survey purposes, Phnom Penh was divided into slum and non-slum areas. The survey results indicate that more boys are found in slum areas and that twice as many girls are located in non-slum areas compared to slum areas.

Types of CDWs

Employing someone to undertake domestic household chores is a long-time practice in Cambodia. Although some domestic workers only work at the employer’s household and return to their home each day, most domestic workers in Phnom Penh also live with the family that employs them. This survey, in particular, found no incidence of non-live in CDWs in Phnom Penh (meaning a domestic worker commutes to his/her employer’s house on a daily basis from the own family home). It is assumed that high rents for houses and living expenses in the capital city contribute to the situation of young people living with the household employer. Also, as Phnom Penh is a common destination for those in search of employment or alternative lifestyle, children and young people are attracted to the city and its perceived or real opportunities.

It is becoming more and more common to find young children among the domestic worker population, due to economic and social changes and cultural factors.

In Cambodian culture, children are regarded as under the control and guidance of their parents. There is no widespread recognition that children have “independent rights”. Thus, it is common for employers of CDWs to be seen as looking after them and providing them experiences as well as food and shelter. As such, exploitation or even child servitude (in the case of ruthless employers) can escape from public scrutiny; the real situations may never be revealed. Without knowing the actual situation, parents as well as society in general perceive child domestic labour as normal and find it acceptable to allow children to work as a domestic helper. 

Education/literacy of CDWs 

According to the survey results, only a limited number of CDWs in Phnom Penh have a chance to attend school while working in an employer’s house. A few get the opportunity to finish primary school, but it is usually difficult to continue into a higher level of education – in strong contrast to the children of the employer’s family. Even in cases where CDWs are permitted to attend school, they must usually fit this in around their duties (for example, evening school). Limited free time and exhaustion from their work make it difficult for children to have enough time or energy to do their homework or to keep up with other children. Thus, they are at risk of dropping out of school all together.

This survey indicates that 14.2 percent of the estimated 27,950 CDWs in Phnom Penh are illiterate: 22 percent of them are girls while only 3 percent are among the boys. Interestingly, the literacy rate of CDWs is higher among those working in slum areas (91.5 percent) than in non-slum areas (81 percent). The survey results also show that 4.6 percent of the 27,950 CDWs have never attended school, 55.4 percent are currently attending school and 40 percent are no longer in school. Overall, 58.9 percent of the CDWs have completed or are attending primary school (grades 1-6), and 35.4 percent have completed or are attending secondary school (grades 7-12).

Working conditions

In general, domestic work is not recognized as a respectable profession by the society and even the young workers. Those with a higher education would always prefer to do another job, and thus domestic work is perceived to be only for those who have no other option.

A majority of responding CDWs (69 percent) describe themselves as “not currently studying” and wanting to change their present job. Of them, more are girls (nearly 80 percent) than boys (67 percent). And among the boys, half want to be technicians (repairing TVs, motorcycles, etc.). Among the girls, most (75 percent) want to work in the garment industry (57 percent) or a beauty parlour business (18 percent).

This survey indicates that in Phnom Penh currently there are many children (around 40 percent of those in the survey) working in households that are not related to their own immediate family. Neither parents nor employers see anything wrong in this as it is considered a positive opportunity for the child. Very poor parents are relieved that the child will be fed and will have good shelter. It is hoped that the child will receive an education and may be able to marry somebody better off. After all, many people migrate from rural areas to work in Phnom Penh where life and opportunity is perceived to be much better.

Employers, on the other hand, may sincerely intend to look after the child initially and his or her interests. The consequences, however, tend to be very different. CDWs, especially when they are live-in workers, are frequently far away from home and family. They are under the control of adults whose first concern is not the well-being or the needs of the child but those of the household. The love and care that children ought to receive is missing and can never be guaranteed. The preparation for adult life other than domestic skills is absent. CDWs are likely to be denied the chance of going to school. If they are over-worked, neglected or abused, they have no one to turn to for help. Many feel isolated and trapped.

According to the survey results, many do not have a choice. In response to the question, “Who invited you to work (as a CDW) the first time,” the survey results show that 57 percent were sent by their family or a relative.