Pale-faced and thin, Chhim Mao sits outside a three-story building in Phnom Penh, guarding cars. Born in Takeo province, the 16-year-old boy has been living for four years with the building owner, a man he’d never known before.
“My grandmother brought me here to help with her housecleaning,” Chhim Mao says. “I help her clean the rooms, and I guard the parked vehicles, as she is getting old and has a lot of work to do.”
In fact, Chhim Mao’s grandmother no longer stays here. She has moved to another house, leaving all her tasks to Chhim Mao. The young boy waters the flowers and the plants. He cleans the stairs. He opens the gate for residents and workers. Often, he dares not sleep until late at night, waiting for the building owner to return.
“I wait for him until one o’clock, when he comes home,” the boy says. “If he has not come, I have to wait for him.”
Chhim Mao is one of more than 20,000 children who leave their hometowns to work in other people's houses in major urban centers like Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap, according to research compiled by World Vision Cambodia and Licadho.
“Some of them are also at high risk of being sexually harassed or even abused by male employers or house owners because of a lack of protection,” says Lor Monirith, World Vision’s manager for the a project to combat child labor.
Children working in private homes like this, often with long hours, lose an opportunity for education, he says.
According to a study by the International Labor Organization, child servants like these work between 12 hours to 18 hours a day, often with little or no pay. They wash dishes and clothes, iron, polish shoes, cook, look after children, care for the infirm. They are the first to rise, the last to sleep and serve at the bidding of their employer. Some are beaten, some scolded, and some are asked to take the wife’s place in the bed of the boss.
Poverty drives the children to the work, Lor Monith says.
“Some parents send their children to work here in the city to earn some money to support the family or pay back debts,” he says.
According to the International Labor Organization’s Convention on the Prevention and Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, the government, as a signatory, must eliminate severe child labor, such as slavery, forced labor or any work affecting a child’s health, safety or morality.
Labor Ministry officials were unavailable or declined to comment.
Licadho spokesman Vann Sophat says his organization has received six cases of domestic child labor abuse this year, but not a single case has been heard by the courts.
“One of the cases was rape, but the perpetrator is walking free,” he says.
A specific law on child domestic workers is needed to protect these child servants, he says. But more than that, parents must understand that it is not a child’s duty to support the family.
“What a child needs to do,” he says, “is go to school and gain knowledge to become a well-educated citizen for the country in the future.”