While the United Nations says child labor has fallen sharply in Cambodia's garment factories, many informal subcontractors using children are escaping scrutiny, activists said Tuesday.
Better Factories Cambodia, a U.N. International Labor Organization and World Bank initiative, found just 10 cases of child labor, down from 74 in 2014, in its latest survey of almost 500 licensed garment export factories.
However, campaigners said that children turned away from factory jobs may be working elsewhere, including homes where garments are produced by subcontractors.
"There have been major strides in eliminating child labor" in factories, said William Conklin, Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based nonprofit promoting workers' rights.
"But what it doesn't address is the issue in the subcontract area. That is a big, unknown area in Cambodia."
Cambodia's garment industry is the largest employer in the country. About 40 percent of its GDP comes from garment exports, and the sector employs more than 800,000 workers.
Cambodian factories supply global brands including Gap, Sweden-based H&M, and sportswear brands Nike, Puma and Adidas.
The ILO report noted that child labor usually involves workers under age 15 who have presented false identity documents to get factory jobs.
Trapped in bonded labor
Tens of thousands of Cambodian families, including children, are trapped in bonded labor, forced to make bricks in return for kiln owners' settling their debts, British researchers said in October.
Child workers are often from families who have had to migrate because climate change has hit their harvests, said Dy The Hoya, a program officer with the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
"I do not see any change in the informal sector," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Esther Germans, a program manager with ILO, said the organization has no data on subcontractors.
"It is generally assumed that working conditions are worse and one can expect more incidences of child labor since there is less scrutiny," she said in emailed comments.
Companies are facing growing scrutiny to ensure their operations are slave-free as rising demand for cheap clothing fuels labor exploitation in factories worldwide.
The government, which has come under fire for its human rights record, said in October that it would increase the monthly minimum wage in the textile sector to $182 in January from $170.
H&M, which hosted a summit on fair wages in the fashion industry in the Phnom Penh on Tuesday, said wages in Cambodian factories producing its clothing were 24 percent higher than the minimum.