Fighting Child Labour - Our First Field Trip

An update from our field work in Vietnam and Cambodia

by Caitlin Ryan


The early morning sky was a hazy Rothko painting of blues and oranges as the sun fanned out from behind the ancient temples. My best friend Kathy and I bounced to the drumbeat with thousands of other runners—ex-pats, travellers, and locals—as we waited for the signal to the start the 2015 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. We’d woken up at 4:30am at our Siem Reap hotel and climbed into an open-air tuk-tuk to join the parade of vehicles along the dark route to the temple-framed start line.

The 21k race was a reflective experience marking the start of my research trip for Sports Philosophy. During the first 7k, I felt extremely grateful for my health and for the opportunity to be in this part of the world for such an event. Less than 48 hours earlier I had stepped onto a plane in Boston. Now here I was among 8,000+ people from all over the globe in the heart of Cambodia, coming together to celebrate the human body and spirit in a long-distance running challenge.

As the race wore on, I began to notice a pattern; hundreds of kids lined up along the route to collect high-fives and plastic bottles from the runners. As the heat and humidity rose, runners grabbed more and more bottles from the water stations along the route. I took at least three bottles, gulping a few sips and tossing the rest as I gasped for breath. Given the size of the crowd, easily tens of thousands of plastic bottles were consumed and discarded. These bottles would have continued to litter the World Heritage trails had it not been for the swift work of the children.

I began to think about the theme of my research trip: child labour.

I did not know if the children in Siem Reap were compelled to collect these plastic bottles, or even if any money was exchanged. Even so, the next hour of running, my mind lingered on the core questions driving my research.

Is child labour always wrong?

According to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, around 168 million children around the world are engaged in child labour. Legally, child labour is forbidden in most countries of the world and is considered a violation of human rights. Working at young ages impacts children’s physical and psychological development and their prospects for social mobility. On a macro level, child labour undermines national development by keeping children out of school, preventing them from obtaining an education and skills that would enable them as adults to contribute to the country’s economic growth and prosperity. However, child labour remains prevalent in some of the world’s poorest regions.

In 2014 the government of Bolivia turned a new corner in the child labour debate, legalizing labour for children as young as 10 years old. For children aged between 10 and 12, work is allowed if they attend school, are self-employed and obtain parental permission. Children who were members of the Bolivian Union of Child Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo) drove this change. Some children in Bolivia believe that prohibiting child labour prevented the implementation of any legal protection and made young workers vulnerable to abuses by employers. Other Bolivian children oppose the new policy; they feel working during their developmental years will prevent them from obtaining an education and reaching their potential. This raises the question: Can kids work in a way that does not inhibit their development?

Are double standards acceptable?

I began to think about what a similar race would look like in my own hometown of Lindstrom, Minnesota (population 4,400 as compared to Sieam Reap’s 174,000+).  Would children ever be expected to collect the water bottles? The simple answer is no. I do not think kids would be expected to collect trash during a race in Lindstrom, unless it were for some kind of educational service activity or a kid-created fun challenge. Back home, kids are expected to learn and play.

This double standard for the treatment of children reveals a growing tension; globalization is a vital force sustaining world growth, but policymakers need to ensure that all people benefit by strengthening access to education and training, adopting adequate social safety nets, and improving the functioning of labour markets. The pressure of globalization has led to cases of labour abuse and exploitation, such as child trafficking and forced labour. For instance, the passage of the TPP would have an enormous impact on the economy of countries like Vietnam. However, who will see those benefits? Will anyone be hurt by the trade expansion?

These are some of the questions that guide me as I begin this research.

By the end of the race I felt relief and triumph, but I also realize I have my work cut out for me. I will be in Southeast Asia for just over two weeks. This is not enough time to find all the answers, but will instead allow me a chance to learn more about the complex issues around child labour. I plan to meet with officials from the Vietnamese and United States governments, representatives from IGOs and NGOs, and hopefully some members of communities impacted by child labour. My central driving question remains: Why does child labour still persist in such large numbers, and what can be done to reduce the burden of the global economy on our most vulnerable members of society?

Future blog posts will include a more in-depth look at the garment industry in Vietnam, and an analysis of the legal and regulatory framework set up by trade deals. Feel free to send comments or questions my way! or @cryandc on Twitter.