Labor Minister Ups Ante Over Child Labor Claims, Warns of Jail

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Thursday said authorities had found only 10 to 20 cases of child labor at brick factories since launching an investigation into allegations of widespread labor abuse, and he again threatened to take legal action against rights group Licadho.

The NGO released a damning report in early December accusing brick factories of regularly using child labor and, especially, debt bondage. On two recent trips, reporters for The Cambodia Daily also found multiple cases of child labor and near-universal debt bondage at factories they visited around Phnom Penh.

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng speaks with lawmakers at the National Assembly on (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

At the Labor Ministry’s annual meeting on Thursday in Phnom Penh, however, Mr. Sam Heng accused an “organization”—which he declined to name, but appeared to be a reference to Licadho—of grossly exaggerating the problem to attract donor funding and of “creating scenarios” to fabricate its claims.

“In case they are found to create scenarios, we need to verify it, or else there will be accusations and imprisonment through legal action,” he said.

The threat was even harsher than the one the minister issued in late December, when he faulted Licadho’s report for making the government look bad.

Child labor is punishable by a fine based on a percentage of the victim’s wages. Those guilty of perpetrating debt bondage can face up to 20 years in jail.

Mr. Sam Heng did not say if any of the cases of child labor that authorities have found resulted in fines. Asked about cases of debt bondage, he replied: “We are now investigating.”

Licadho could not immediately be reached for comment.

Contacted afterward, ministry spokesman Heng Sour declined to elaborate on the investigation and referred to a summary of the ministry’s work that was released at Thursday’s meeting.

The summary says the ministry intervened in 3,421 cases of child labor last year. It does not say how many of those cases, if any, were at brick factories or what, if any, fines were imposed.

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