It was raining hard on the day two years ago when Phea stepped up to a clattering machine with a fresh load of dirt at one of the 20-odd brick-making factories in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, a few dozen kilometers north of Phnom Penh on the east bank of the Mekong River.
Phea, 14 at the time, was out of school and helping his mother at the factory, loading the machine that squeezed out the bricks they would lay out in the sun before loading them into the kilns for a final roasting.
A 15-year-old boy stacks bricks at a factory in Kandal province earlier this week. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)“I brought over some dirt to put in the machine, but I slipped on the machine and it pulled my arm in,” he recalled a few days ago. “It would have cut my arm off if my dad hadn’t come to turn the machine off in time.”
The accident left Phea’s left arm mangled and disabled. Doctors amputated part of his hand, taking off a thumb and index finger.
“I can’t use my arm like normal. It’s stiff and the muscles are dead,” he said. “Even now it still hurts sometimes.”
Phea’s story is not unique, maybe not even so rare, according to a new report that says the country’s construction boom is being built on the back of what amounts to modern-day slavery.
“Build on Slavery,” released today by local rights group Licadho, exposes the prevalence of child labor and debt bondage—both illegal and, in the latter’s case, punishable by hefty prison time—in the country’s brick factories, unchecked by government authorities and trapping whole families in poverty one generation after another.
“Police stations and commune offices are located close by, often overlooking the factories, and the authorities know exactly what’s going on inside,” said Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s monitoring manager. “It’s a scandal that this is going on, and the government must intervene to bring it to an end immediately.”
From June to August, the rights group visited 11 sites around Phnom Penh that included hundreds of factories with thousands of workers pumping out the millions of cheap bricks feeding the capital’s rapidly rising skyline.
Licadho says it found a well-rooted business practice in which factory owners give loans to their workers with the promise of their labor until the debts are paid off. But their piecework pay for the bricks is so low that they struggle to pay the loans down and often feel pressured to recruit their children just to earn enough to feed their family.
The researchers found debt bondage and child labor just about everywhere they went, as well as common reports of serious injury. In the last two years, Licadho has also investigated three cases in which children at a brick factory had lost an arm. One of them, a 9-year-old boy, ended up succombing to his injuries.
“[The] industry relies on a workforce of modern-day slaves, multigenerational families of adults and children trapped in debt bondage,” the report says.
“It reveals that debt bondage is widely used by factory owners as a way of guaranteeing themselves a long-term, cheap and compliant workforce. Because of the low rates of pay and a system of payment by piece, children are often drawn into factory work alongside their parents,” it says. “Accidents occur regularly, with some resulting in serious injury, limb loss and even death.”
The factories are also operating in blatant breach of the law.
Children are allowed to start work at the age of 15 under the Labor Law, but only at 18 if the work may be hazardous. The work at brick factories easily fits the bill under the definitions from the International Labor Organization (ILO), which includes exposure to dust, fumes, extreme heat and dangerous tools or equipment.
At the factories, children help out with almost every step of the process, save driving the excavators that dig up the dirt that goes into the machines and driving the finished bricks away. They load the brick-making machines, fix motors, haul heavy loads of bricks to the ovens and stoke the kilns with wood.
Most of the children Licadho saw working at the factories during its visits were between 13 and 15, though some were as young as 9 or 10. The children that reporters saw working at one factory in Kandal’s Mok Kampoul district during a visit this week were 13 and up. Their parents said some 30 to 40 children worked at the factory in all.
Debt bondage is also strictly prohibited, included in the Human Trafficking Law’s definition of exploitative labor. The penalty for child labor is a fine equal to as much as 60 days’ base pay. Punishment for labor exploitation under the law is much harsher—up to 15 years in prison, 20 if the victim is a minor.
For all the laws and penalties, there appears to be little to no effort to enforce them.
“Government apathy and lack of will on the part of law enforcement agencies, corruption, and the desperation of Cambodia’s poorest for any kind of livelihood means that the law is not enforced and the factory owners face no sanctions,” the report says.
Licadho said it did not know of a single factory owner who has been fined, let alone prosecuted, even when children were injured on the job.
Police told Phea’s parents that their son’s injury was their fault because they had let him work and had no case against the owner. The family settled for having the owner forgive half the $5,000 they owed him and moved to the brick factory in Mok Kampoul, across the river, putting what was left of their debt in the hands of the new factory’s owner.
Phea, who started making bricks at the age of 11, is now back in school. But one of his four brothers and sisters has filled his shoes at the new factory. The others have married and moved away or were still too young for the physical work.
“I want my children to go to school, but I don’t have money,” said his mother, Mok, taking her lunch break in the shade by her home. The factory owner furnishes the families with the ramshackle timber and tin houses free of charge on site. Water and electricity is extra. Everywhere, brick shards litter the ground.
Primary and secondary school for Mok’s children should be free. But it’s become standard practice across the country for public school teachers to demand a daily fee. Asked about putting her children to work, Mok replied: “I have no choice. If I send them to school, I can’t feed my family. I work one day and I have food for one day.”
Because the factories pay their workers per brick instead of a steady wage, families are encouraged to get their children in on the act. Workers at the factory said the families get paid 30,000 riel, or about $7.50, for every 100,000 bricks. A husband and wife with two children helping them said they could earn about 400,000 riel, or about $100, a month.
At that rate, Mok said there was nothing left over to pay down the $2,500 she still owes.
“I have no hope of paying back my debt. I think I will be doing this until my last day,” she said. “I will not be able to pay my debt, so my children will be the next generation to be responsible for it.”
A 14-year-old boy drives away a pile of bricks at a factory in Kandal province earlier this week. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)Lek, who works at the factory with her husband and their three children—aged 13, 15 and 18—said the owner was not keen to have police around.
“Our boss does not want police to come here,” she said. But even when they do show up, she added, to settle a domestic dispute, for example, “they do not care about the child labor.”
The factory owner, Thou Vathana, contacted later by telephone, denied that the children put in regular work.
“It’s not true,” he said. “We do not use child labor. Please believe me.”
He said “a few” children might help out occasionally, but only for short spells if their mother falls ill or, he added, their father has a boozy night and can’t work the next day.
Mr. Vathana acknowledged that most of the families owed him a few thousand dollars, but considered it charity more than anything else.
“Most of them took a loan from the bank for $3,000 or $4,000,” he said. “So we help them. First, we stop the bank from confiscating their homes. Second, we do not charge them interest. Third, they get free housing.”
He said most of the other brick factories did the same, giving unskilled workers jobs that paid better than anything else they could find. The factories were getting safer too, he added, replacing the kind of machines that mangled Phea’s arm with bigger versions that take loads of dirt straight from the excavators.
As for getting away with breaking the law, Mr. Vathana said the authorities “understand.”
“They understand the issue,” he said. “But the NGOs, they don’t understand what we do. They just think about themselves. They never think, ‘Oh, the brick factory helps poor people.’”
Kim Rithy, spokesman for the Kandal provincial government, said he had no idea whether the factories were putting children to work or using families locked in debt to their bosses. He said he did not know that either was against the law.
“I don’t know. I haven’t received any information about whether this kind of thing is illegal,” he said. “So far we haven’t received any reports…. If we get any reports like that, we will assign a working group to investigate.”
The Labor Ministry has a labor inspection bureau meant to seek out and stop these very practices. Ministry spokesman Heng Sour and labor department chief Seng Sakada ignored multiple requests for an interview throughout the week. When reached by telephone on Thursday, Mr. Sakada declined to comment and hung up.
There are no official figures on exactly how many brick factories there are in Cambodia or just how many people they put to work. Licadho counted 131 factories within a couple of hours drive north of Phnom Penh alone, and the demand is only expected to grow.
The U.N. expects the capital’s population to expand by nearly a third over the next decade, to almost 2.3 million, and the city’s housing can hardly expand fast enough.
It’s almost impossible to walk a few blocks of the city without seeing a new building going up or an old one getting a facelift, the ubiquitous piles of pale red bricks scattered below.
Mong Reththy is one of the country’s biggest developers. He is also secretary-general of the Cambodia Constructors Association.
Mr. Reththy said he personally objected to child labor and debt bondage, but felt powerless to do anything about it, short of not using either on his own projects. He said an association policy against using brick suppliers who profit from such practices was impractical.
“We can’t make rules against those things because sometimes we buy from here and sometimes we buy from there,” he said. “The factories that supply us, we can’t put pressure on them to stop using child labor. We can’t do that because we don’t buy from just one factory.”
There was no quick fix to the poverty and debt that leave families with no choice but to put their children to work, Mr. Reththy said.
“That does not mean they [government officials] are not thinking about these issues,” he said. “They can’t solve them in one day, one month or one year. They need time.”
Licadho says they could be doing much more.
The rights group recommends that the government give lawbreaking factory owners an amnesty on prosecution in return for canceling their workers’ debts, but taking them to court if they refuse to mend their ways.
It recommends reforming the labor inspection system so officials do their job and focus on dangerous work sites first, outlawing piecework in the brick industry and guaranteeing a minimum wage, and raising the salaries of local authorities so they are not tempted to take bribes to look the other way.
It also urges foreign governments to make their firms with investment plans or projects in Cambodia aware of the problem, hold them accountable for the use of child labor and debt bondage in their supply chains and help create a certification scheme for brick factories that follow the law.
But for now, the factories continue to feed a booming economy on the power of children and crushing debt.
At the factory in Mok Kampoul, Phat, 15, spent a recent morning hauling and driving bricks to the kilns and packing the ovens with brick piles almost twice his height.
“I used to go to school, but I decided to quit because I wanted to help my mom,” he said. “Honestly, I want to go back to school but I have no choice. I’m sad because she is very poor and owes a lot of money.”
His fingers and toes were bruised and scratched from the bricks that fall on them. A bloody scab on his shin was healing slowly after a metal rod cut it open more than a week ago.
“I worry about accidents,” he said. “But I know it’s dangerous, so I have to be careful all the time.”
peter@cambodiadaily.com, sokhean@cambodiadaily.com
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