Poor children in Phnom Penh are forced to go out to help their families despite the risks

While other children are having fun with their families in the park, 14-year-old Vireakbot is selling fruit and snacks along the riverside and in the park in front of the Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh. Vireakbot says he helps his mother earn money to support his family and his education.

Vireakbot is selling packaged fruits to guests on a tourist boat. Photo by Tuy Engly (Sakura)

Vireakbot, studying in grade 7 said, “I’m also tired, I start selling from 2 pm to 8 pm or someday going to 9 pm. I agree to sell because if I don’t sell, I don’t have money to go to school.”

Vireakbot is one of many children selling foods, snacks, fruits, books, flowers, and other items in public such as in parks, restaurants and beer gardens. The children interviewed by FYN told us that their mothers had sent them to sell and earn money to support family living costs and also support their education.

Tall, dark-skinned with a modern hairstyle, Vireakbot is a boy who studies at Chea Sim Samaki Santhor Mok High School. He described that he always comes to help his widow mother sell fruits and snacks in the park in front of the Royal Palace and along the Chaktomuk riverside.

At around 6 pm, Vireakbot wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans starts walking with a tray containing about 20 packs of fruits such as jackfruit, mango, pineapple, tamarind, Naem​ (Khmer traditional snack made from fish), grapefruit, eggplant, and boiled duck eggs. Each day, the mother arranges for him to sell from 80 to 100 packages and he can earn up to 200,000 riels (around 50 dollars).

After selling fruits on tourist boards and parks, Vireakbot takes a short break. He said he spends 7 hours per day helping his mother to sell the fruits and snacks. He sells from 2 pm to 8 pm and some nights until 9 pm.

Hem Sokunthea, the 40 year old mother of Vireakbot, said she was divorced from her husband the father of Vireakbot since he was 6 months old. She is the head of the family, earning money to support two children and her elderly mother.

Currently, they are renting a small apartment on the bottom floor at a price of 200 dollars per month including water supply and electricity at location Samnang 12, Sangkat Teuk Laak. Sokunthea also spends around 200 dollars per year on her medical care was after her gallstone surgery 3 years ago.

She said that in addition to economic needs to support the family, she also wants her children to go outside to learn social skills and she believes that selling in the park is not too hard of work. She added that she was also worried about her child’s safety and she did not allow him to sell past 9 pm at night. However, she confirmed that she still encourages her children to continue their education.

A 14-year-old boy, Vireakbot, is selling packaged fruits in the park in front of the Royal Palace and along the riverside. Photo by Tuy Engly (Sakura)

Hem Sokunthea said, “In general, I want to say that… In fact, when he was young, I did not want him to do it, I understand that this is child labor, but sometimes we have no choice. We have no choice but if he came, it is also good for me too.”

She added: “I pity him, I do not want him to come, I let him stay home but he wants to come and help to sell. When I see my children walking around and asking customers to buy, I pity him! I pity him, sometimes I thought if his father was still with us, may he did not come to sell like this, but what can we do, we must challenge our life”.

Another boy named Sothy, age 10, sells soft drinks and grilled chicken at the riverside not too not far from Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine.

Thida the 41 year old, mom of Sothy. She described that she had three children, two boys, and one girl. Her family had left from hometown in Koh Thom district, Kandal province, and have been living in Phnom Penh for almost 10 years, renting a small room to live in at 40 dollars per month. She claims that she lets her children sell and earn money as she thought that is not too much hard work for children.

In addition to earning a living, Thida also has to pay off debts, paying more than 100 dollars a month.

However, Thida is also worried about her children’s safety, and she does not dare to let her children sell late into the night.

Sothy is helping his mother to sell soft drinks in the riverside area at night. Photo by Tuy Engly (Sakura)

Thida said, “Let them go to bed at 9 pm and I sell until late at night about 10 or 11 pm, sometimes up to 12 pm.”

She is worried about her children’s future, so she and her husband are committed to sending their children to school, even if they are tired from helping her sell at night.

She added, “We agree to be struggling and send them to school. If one day we don’t have the ability then we will find another way but now we must send them to school.”

The 13 year old Meng Horng walks and sells fruit and snacks in restaurants and in the park near the Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh, Chroy Changvar district opposite the Royal Palace.

Meng Horng said the reason that she came to sell was that her parents borrowed a lot of money from the bank, so she and her siblings came out to sell and earn money to support her family and pay back the bank.

Meng Horng, is the third daughter in the family and has four other siblings. She studies in the 6th grade and every day she comes to sell from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm. She also complains about her having to sell and that she is tired from selling very late every night. That is the reason she doesn’t have enough time to study. But she considers that it is her duty and she has no choice.

Meng Horng said, “Because I see my parents, they are very struggling. They owe a lot of money! [Bank debt] Because my mom is a borrower. I am too tired but how can I do it and I agree by myself.”

A boy is selling packaged fruits in the park in front of the Royal Palace. Photo by Tuy Engly (Sakura)

Mao Mab, Head of the women’s and children’s rights unit of the human rights group Adhoc, said that although child labor in the park was less labor-intensive, it is still in the form of child labor trafficking. She believes that children need to be educated, nurtured by their families, and especially have social protection.

Mao Mab said, ” Overall, this is in some form child labor exploitation because we see that children need to be protected, nurtured, taken care and given an opportunity to go to school. Because their parents have financial problems and they lack money, they are forcing their children to go to work at night.”

She added that the government should have a budget to help poor students so that they can get an education.

Mao Mab said, “They are a member of society, so the government should have an obligation to address all these issues because we see that there should be a budget to help the poor and needy, especially children.”

She added, “Thus, as a Cambodian government duty, which has a responsibility for the people, there is an obligation to have a budget to help poor students to make sure they can get an education. The government should increase the economy for poor families.”

Tourists buy fruits packaged by the boy at the park in front of the Royal Palace. Photo by Tuy Engly (Sakura)

According to a UNICEF report, from 2011 to 2015, more than one and a half million Cambodian children faced serious labor abuse. Most of them are orphans, street vendors, or children selling fruits, flowers, and books in parks, restaurants, and beer gardens in Phnom Penh’s capital. Most of these children have been severely abused by their parents, guests, and employers.

UNICEF released another report in 2017, entitled “The Impact of Child Migration to Phnom Penh”, showing that the majority of children who migrate with their parents give up. Unprotected education and exploitation of labor due to poor family living conditions.

The ministry’s General Department of Technical Affairs director-general and spokesman Toch Channy, said the ministry did not allow children to sell in parks and on the streets as it affected children’s safety, and especially their studies.

Toch Channy said, “Actually, in relation to children selling on the street and parks, we are not allowed to do that. First, children face a lot of risk with traffic. They are selling with their products, they are running, running back and forth, and this is a problem. Yes! there are many problems that cause they are losing their education; they did not go to school.”

Channy added that the Ministry has implemented a number of measures by inviting parents as well as many children to guide. However, he confirmed that the Ministry does not have the authority to arrest or stop them from selling. He invited the relevant ministries to work together to resolve this issue, especially the local authorities who have sufficient authority to ban them from trading in public parks.

Back to Vireakbot, even though he has time to study in the morning and study some extra hours, He does not seem to have much confidence in achieving his desire to be a police officer in the future.

Vireakbot said with despair in a weak voice, “It is not possible [Police Officer] because I’m studying and selling together. I am still selling and I don’t have enough time to study.”

Tuy Engly (Sakura)