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From a child’s eye: Working in the hot sharp salt fields of Cambodia

This year, the world marks the tenth anniversary of the annual World Day Against Child Labour. But for many parents in Cambodia, sending their children to work is an economic necessity.

Feature | 07 June 2012

GENEVA (ILO News) – Mother of six, ChhouKan has worked in the salt fields in Kampot along the southern coast of Cambodia for twenty years. Famous for its black and red pepper, Kampot is also the only province in the country that produces salt.

When her husband passed away, in order to make ends meet, she brought her five eldest children to the fields to join her.

“When my husband was alive my children did not work. But when he died I had to use the children to help me,” ChhouKan says. “It is very important for me to get an income, my financial situation is difficult and I have no rice fields,” she added.

As the world marks the tenth anniversary of the annual World Day Against Child Labour, the situation of ChhouKan and her family in the Kampot salt fields illustrates some of the difficulties people and Governments across the world face when it comes to child labour.

It is heavy work, filling and collecting water. The salt is very hot and when it dries and becomes sharp, you can cut your feet badly on it."
ChhouKan’s 13 year-old daughter, Ly Vannaroun, also known as Naroun had worked in the salt sector from the age of eight years old.

During these four years of her young life her daily schedule consisted of school in the morning and then she would join her mother in the salt fields in the afternoon, where she would work until early evening.

Naroun was recently helped to leave the Kampot salt fields through support provided by the International Labour Organization’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.

This programme was able to give her school clothes, a schoolbag, a bicycle and other support through the gradual process of ending her gruelling daily work. Naroun is now a full-time student in Grade 6.

“Working in the salt field is difficult, but school is not so difficult,” she said. Her favourite subjects are mathematics and Khmer literature which she likes because of the spelling. 

Naroun says that the work for which she earned 10,000 riel per day (the equivalent of $2.50) was hugely difficult.

“It is heavy work, filling and collecting water. The salt is very hot and when it dries and becomes sharp, you can cut your feet badly on it. There were no boots for our feet. I was getting sick a lot. I would get headaches and stomach problems after long hours in the sun,” she said.

Salt field work involves distilling salt from sea water into smaller pools. It is an entirely manual process and involves heavy lifting over sharp salt crystals and long hours working under the strong sunlight and intense heat.

The ILO has described the practice of children working in Cambodia's salt fields as "one of the worst forms of child labour."

Although finances are still a massive obstacle for the family, her mother is optimistic about Naroun’s future. “Naroun is a very smart child and is always reading at home,” ChhouKan says.

In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the population are poor agricultural workers struggling to support their families.

For many parents, sending their children to work is an economic necessity and a decision taken with great difficulty.

Cambodia ratified ILO’s child labour Convention No. 138 concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment on 23 August 1999 and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour on 14 March 2006.

Tags: child labour

Regions and countries covered: Cambodia

Unit responsible: Department of Communication (DCOMM)

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