The truth about child labor in Cambodia

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from travel writer Kristin Addis. 

The piping hot day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, becomes ever more noticeable as the wind stops grazing the skin and the tuk-tuk comes to a halt outside of the gates of the extraordinary ruins of Angkor Wat.  Perhaps you’ve waited your whole life to see these ruins – – I know I certainly had.

Monkeys run across the path in front of the tourists on foot.  A captive elephant carries passengers upon his back through the forests surrounding the temple.  Hoards of tourists flash their cameras at centuries-old rocks.  It is exactly how you had imagined it would be.

That is, until entering the grounds, when a tiny, bronzed hand tugs at yours.

“Miss!” the young girl chides in near-perfect English, “Beautiful post-cards! One dollah, one dollah!”

Another child, this time a boy who appears to be no older than six-years-old, runs up and asks which country you’re from, because he’s collecting coins, and, gee, he would really like to have one from each country.  Could you spare some money, perhaps?

Photo courtesy Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

I encountered this scene often as I traveled throughout Cambodia.

On the beaches of the south, children had memorized popular American songs as a way to get our attention and start a dialogue with the aim of selling bracelets.  In the capitol city of Phnom Penh, children hawked everything from guidebooks to drugs.

These images were heartbreaking every time.  As a tourist who can afford to spare a dollar or two, it seems heartless to deny a child this small gift.  So, many tourists buy from them, if only to support them slightly, and to feel a bit less guilty.

Some tourists resist at first, or ask questions to justify the donation.  These children easily produce a laundry list of reasons why they are selling goods and/or begging:

I have to work to help my family, my parents have no jobs.

I am working so that I can pay for school!

Look at your hairy legs! Like a monkey! I’ll thread them for you! Here, I’ll show you, let me try.

Please help me. You have money, you can help me!

Photo courtesy of sebr via Flickr Creative Commons License

The reality is, these children are not going to school.  Their parents may be sitting only a few meters away, ushering their children forward because tourists find it harder to say “no” to children vs. adults.  The children know that if they mess with you, joke with you, and warm up to you, they may just make a sale.

Of course you have a dollar to spare, and you may feel better momentarily for what appears to be the alleviation of poverty.

Regardless, the bottom line is, giving to young workers and beggars directly supports, perpetuates, and encourages child labor.

Even worse, these children are often pawns of larger organizations that traffic children, expose them to drugs, impose exceedingly long hours, and take the majority of the earnings.

As tough and hopeless as the situation may appear, the hope for a brighter future lies in schooling.  Giving to child workers only supports the easy way out – sending children to work so that they can earn now, rather than giving them the opportunity to learn now and earn more in the future.

This shouldn’t prevent us from giving altogether, however.  There are ways to make sure that your money and good intentions go into the right hands.

How you can help put an end to child labor in Cambodia

–       Donate time or money to local organizations that support child education and the betterment of local lives

–       Buy from street vendors who are of age, and tip where it makes sense to – this supports work from those of a proper age and puts money directly into the local economy

–       Check before you donate.  Websites like Concert Cambodia help to keep local organizations accountable

*Cover photo courtesy of Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

About the Author

Kristin Addis is the Chief Blogette at Be My Travel Muse, a website geared towards independent women travelers who like to head off the beaten path in Asia and Australia.  After traveling solo throughout Southeast Asia in the fall of 2012, spending a month touring Cambodia, she decided to research and better understand responsible travel.  A native Californian, she has dedicated her foreseeable future to traveling Australasia and beyond.

 

3 Comments on " The truth about child labor in Cambodia "

  1. Talon March 31, 2013 at 4:51 am · Reply

    Good advice that really applies anywhere. I’ve seen it all over SE Asia and in many places in Latin America. You can feel so heartless walking away, but in the end you’re doing them a favor. The more tourists that quit giving handouts, the better the lives of these children will be.

    • Diana April 2, 2013 at 3:47 am · Reply

      So, so true. If only more people realized.

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