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CAMBODIA: Financial Crisis Forces More Teenage Girls into Labour

Marwaan Macan-Markar*

BANGKOK, Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - Until the global financial crisis hit, a journey out of poverty for women in rural Cambodia was assured by the vibrant garment sector that had taken root in the country’s capital. Tens of thousands of women in their twenties poured into Phnom Penh to secure jobs in the hundreds of export-oriented factories.

At the height of the garment industry in April 2008, the 300 factories in and around the capital had a 340,000 workforce, 85 percent of whom were female migrant workers from provinces such as Kampong Speu, Prey Veng, Takeo, Kampong Cham and Kandal.

Then the global financial crunch struck, beginning in the United States last year and spreading to this corner of South-east Asia. Suddenly the U.S. market, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of Cambodia’s garment exports, began to dry up.

The consequence, say experts studying the impact of the crisis on a mainstay of the Cambodian economy, is an increasing number of teenage girls from the provinces heading to Phnom Penh to seek jobs to make up for the loss of income that has hit their families.

Cambodian law permits such work, since child labour covers those who are 14 years and below.

“More family members, particularly younger women, are being sent to work from the rural areas to the city,” says Sukti Dasgupta, senior specialist on employment and labour market policies at the East Asia office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “These women are in the 15 to 17 age group.”

“They are from poorer backgrounds and less educated and have been sent to the city to make up for the loss in family income due to the financial crisis,” she said in an interview in her Bangkok office. “They are going into vulnerable jobs and are more susceptible to exploitation.”

While the ILO and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia have still to arrive at a number indicating the extent of this internal migration trend, anecdotal evidence has helped shape a picture about these new entrants into this poverty-stricken country’s workforce.

“There are a lot of young girls you see in the informal sector, as domestic workers in Phnom Penh households,” says Haidy Ear-dupuy, advocacy and communications director at the Cambodia office of World Vision, a Christian relief and development organisation. “Many households look for these girls that are coming in larger numbers.”

These young entrants into the labour force are also an increasing presence in the shops and open stalls in the city’s markets, Ear-dupuy said in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. “They do light work, helping with sales.” Yet those like Ear-dupuy and others working for NGOs are concerned that with the plum jobs in the garment sector not available, these teenage workers could be drawn into the city’s entertainment sector, exposing them to abuse.

There are cases of young girls who first come to the city as domestic workers and subsequently move on to work as waitresses or in karaoke bars in hopes of earning more, say researchers monitoring this emerging trend.

In July, a report by a United Nations agency revealed that the crisis had forced more girls and women into the sex trade.

“There are indications of an increase in women and girls entering the entertainment sector during the timeframe of the financial crisis,” says the study by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. “These workers come from numerous provinces in Cambodia, most heavily from Kampong Cham, Kandal and Prey Veng.”

The two-month study done through April and May surveyed 357 women and girls between the ages 15 and 49. It said the women were labouring as “brothel workers, street workers, karaoke workers and massage parlour workers,” it adds.

The study confirmed that the tough times faced by families in the wake of the economic crisis was a factor behind this trend. “For entertainment workers of all types, by far the most common reason reported for entering the sex trade was ‘difficult family circumstances,’ followed by ‘easily earn a lot of money in good working condition’,” it noted.

The trying times rural families face as women have lost their jobs or their overtime rates slashed in factories are with reason. Most female employees in a factory earn a monthly wage of 73 U.S. dollars, which includes the minimum wage, overtime payments and cost-of-living allowances, says Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme of Better Factories Cambodia, an ILO-run programme. “They remit nearly half of that, about 30 U.S. dollars, to their families in the provinces.”

“This is an important source of income for the families of the women working in the garment sector,” adds Vaillancourt-Laflamme in a telephone interview from her Phnom Penh office. “Some women have decided to remain employed even at the expense of their overtime payments being cut.”

According to current estimates about 50,000 employees have lost their jobs in the export sector since April last year. The number of factories functioning is down to 261 from a high of 300 last year.

The Cambodian factories, which supply major international brands such as Adidas, Nike and GAP, brought in 2.78 billion dollars in 2008, accounting for over 90 percent of the country’s total exports.

The garment sector has proved a major boon to a country of 14 million people where nearly 35 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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