Sothear* sunk red clay bricks into the earth in front of his sheet-metal shack last year during the rainy season when the soil started turning to mud. His handiwork is a haphazardly laid patio, which makes it easier to walk when the dry yard becomes saturated.
The bricks came from the nearby factory in Kandal province’s Preah Prasap commune, about an hour’s drive from central Phnom Penh, where Sothear’s job is to load the building blocks of Cambodia’s construction boom into a kiln for firing. The 48-year-old has worked at the brick factory for about five years, he says in late March outside his home.
He works with his wife—earning a combined 40,000 riel (about US$10) per day—and two of his five children, who help load kiln-fired bricks into a cart after school. The building materials are later trucked to the capital and other cities to build houses, condominiums, hotels and luxury real-estate developments for wealthy Cambodians and foreign expatriates.
Sothear, a former construction worker who was injured on the job a decade ago, says he’s US$1,000 in debt. For most poor families employed in the brick sector, he adds, children help their parents out of economic necessity.
“Look at her hands,” the father says, motioning toward his 13-year-old daughter, who then holds out her hands and examines her palms.
“Our hands are hard,” he explains. “In order to get money, we sweat all over our bodies and our hands are calloused.”
A few years ago, Sothear says, the workers at his factory mostly used brick-moulding machines into which they manually loaded earth, although they now use more modern equipment. Sometimes these older machines “swallowed people’s hands,” he says. “When we started using the advanced machines, it’s better.”
But in the same commune earlier in March, at a different brick factory that still uses the old machinery, a girl around the same age as Sothear’s daughter was pulled into a machine. Ten-year-old Chheng Srey Pheak’s right arm was crushed and then severed.
A “left behind” industry
As Cambodia’s booming urban construction sector continues to demand truckloads of bricks; rural poverty and indebtedness continue to supply the conditions for cheap, disposable labour. Government officials continue to deny abuses are taking place, while whole families indebted to their bosses continue to work in an industry that exploits them.
In recent years, human rights organisations, researchers and journalists have reported extensively on the brick-making industry’s serious dangers and rights violations, including families trapped in debt bondage, experiencing child labour and facing hazardous work conditions.
“Building projects demand bricks in large quantities, and there is a profitable domestic brick industry supplying them,” says a October 2018 report, Blood Bricks, by researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London.
“This industry relies upon a multigenerational workforce of adults and children trapped in debt bondage–one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in the world,” the report says.
When this research and a similar 2016 report was published, government officials were quick to promise investigations—and to criticise researchers for not bringing their findings, including lax enforcement of labour laws, to the government before publishing them. Officials have regularly denied bonded and child labour are plaguing the brick-making sector.
This year, after Srey Pheak lost her arm and the case was widely reported on, officials were forced to explain how yet another child could have lost a limb after the industry’s dangers and violations had already been exposed.
Yet, the head of the ministry’s child labour department tells New Naratif that the incident was the result of “carelessness” of the girl’s parents, while also denying that any cases of child labour and debt bondage occur in the industry. Still, the official says the government is prioritising measures to ensure children’s safety.
Meanwhile, the manager at the factory where Srey Pheak lost her arm suggested in late April that the workers were bonded labourers who needed to pay their debts to the factory before working elsewhere. Srey Pheak’s parents took a loan about a year ago to buy a house and land where they are from in Kompong Cham province. Others take on debt from brick factories due to poor harvests, limited job opportunities and the lure of no-interest loans from factory owners.
Khun Tharo, a union consultant and coordinator at labour rights organisation Central, says the industry employs indebted parents and often their children—vulnerable workers whose occupational health and safety is not protected. “It’s a circle from one generation to another generation,” Tharo says. “There’s no window of opportunity for workers to get out.”
Despite in-depth documentation of the industry’s problems since 2016, the issues remain.
“It’s a circle from one generation to another generation. There’s no window of opportunity for workers to get out”
Indebted brick factory workers bring their children to work alongside them, relying on their kids to help support the family’s livelihood. Without sufficient oversight and acknowledgement of labour abuses from officials, children and adults remain vulnerable to exploitation and injury, especially at worksites that use antiquated machines, researchers and advocates say.
The Labour Ministry took action after Srey Pheak lost her arm, ensuring that she received medical care and compensation, but the government has disregarded past reports of labour violations, according to Tharo. “It’s very important that the ministry and the government have to accept what is happening rather than to ignore,” he says.
For now, though, Tharo says, “It’s an industry that is left behind.”
Child caught in the machine
Outside a Phnom Penh children’s hospital in March, Khim Channa, a former brick factory worker and mother of Srey Pheak, explains how she and her family used to shape earth into bricks, first wetting a pile of earth and letting it sit for two days.
“And then we take that small piece of earth from the pile, and put it into the [brick-moulding] machine and then it becomes a brick,” Channa says.
Her and her husband together had earned about US$5 per day, depending on the number of bricks they made. Housing, electricity and water for the couple and their three daughters was paid for by the factory owner. The family didn’t have enough food to eat. Channa’s two older daughters, Srey Pheak, 10, and her 12-year-old sister had stopped going to school a year or two earlier and started helping their parents make bricks.
Of the 10 families working at the brick factory, all in debt to the owner, about three other children beside her own helped their parents make bricks, Channa says.
“They are not really working every day. They just come to help for a short time,” she adds. But that was all it took for Srey Pheak to lose her arm.
Channa says she was working at a brick-moulding machine with Srey Pheak beside her on a Saturday morning. Her husband, Chheng Bunhorn, had taken some bricks to dry in the sun. Her daughter was putting earth into the machine.
The girl often played with the earth and tried to pick it out of the brick-maker. Channa regularly reprimanded Srey Pheak for this. But this time, Channa was bent down cutting the newly-formed clay into bricks and did not see her daughter put her hand in the machine.
She heard Srey Pheak scream “mother” three times and looked up, shocked. By then the girl’s arm had already been pulled in and crushed.
“I could not pull my daughter out of the machine,” Channa says. “So I asked a man nearby to help.”
The 10-year-old was taken to a local hospital first and then transferred to the Phnom Penh children’s hospital. Her right arm was severed above her elbow.
In 2016, local rights organisation Licadho found that debt bondage and child labour are “flourishing” in Cambodia’s brick factories despite Cambodian and international laws against the practices. Licadho’s report shows that factory owners take advantage of indebted workers who often draw their children into the hazardous work to make ends meet, due to low pay and a system of payment by brick.
Three past cases of children who lost arms to brick factory machinery investigated by Licadho appear shockingly similar to how Srey Pheak was injured.
“The most common accident seems to be above-the-elbow arm loss,” Licadho’s report says. “One case involved a seven-year-old boy who was playing near his mother as she worked at a machine with an uncovered conveyor belt motor; one involved a nine-year-old boy who was working putting mud into a machine; and one involved a 14-year-old who was also working loading mud into a machine.”
According to Licadho, the 9-year-old boy died of his injuries.
In each case, the victims’ parents attempted to complain to the authorities “but the police refused to forward the cases to court,” Licadho noted. In at least two of the cases, the authorities told parents that they were to blame for their children’s injuries for allowing them to work or play near machinery.
In addition, Licadho said that many brick workers reported being warned by their factory’s owner that the police would be called and they would be arrested if they tried to flee the factory without repaying their debt.
While Licadho’s findings may have been limited by the difficulty of interviewing workers—they spoke to about 70 workers, out of an estimated nationwide workforce in the tens of thousands—the organisation found a “high level of consistency” in workers’ testimonies in regards to debt bondage, working conditions, employment practices and child labour.
The interviews were conducted in 2015 and 2016 mostly in Kandal province and the northern limits of Phnom Penh, which have high concentrations of brick factories.
More research was conducted from September 2017 to April 2018 by a team of academics, who found evidence of similar abuses, including debt bondage and child labour, while highlighting climate change and environmental factors which contribute to pushing poor families into exploitative work in the brick industry.
Their report, Blood Bricks, was based on 80 interviews with brick workers and 31 interviews with factory owners, former workers, residents living around kilns and others.
Laurie Parsons, one of the report’s authors, says he doesn’t think the situation at factories has changed much since the report was released in October 2018.
While his team is working to obtain data on the scale of the brick industry’s workforce, Parsons says they were “confident that the workforce is increasing based on the rising demand for bricks and increasing precarities of the workforce that produces workers.”
He adds that factories were “extremely dangerous environments to live in for various reasons,” including exposure to extremely high temperatures and toxic fumes from the burning of clothing and other non-timber materials to fuel kilns.
“In kilns that use manual machines, there is the additional risk of amputation due to accident,” Parsons says.
They also aim to determine the number of factories still using the hand-loaded brick-making machines, which he says remains high, although is falling.
Labour Ministry official Veng Heang tells New Naratif that he didn’t know how many factories use manual machines, but estimates the number is low. The government is encouraging owners to adopt safer, automatic equipment, although the more modern brick-making machines require a costly investment, which small-scale employers “hardly can afford,” Heang says.
“The owners, some, they say, ‘no, we cannot make any profit’ and borrowing money from financial institutions [is] very difficult for them to pay back the interest,” Heang adds.
The ministry intends to work with other government bodies and financial institutions, while considering the concerns of brick manufacturers about the lack of incentives for their sector, he says.
The goal is marginal productivity growth for employers and safer conditions for children living at brick factories, according to Heang.
“Our heartfelt effort is to keep children safe,” he says.
Still, more than two years after Licadho first called on the government to protect workers and end debt bondage and child labour, Srey Pheak lost her limb to a manual machine.
Demand for bricks
As the number and value of approved real-estate projects grows, the demand for bricks is unlikely to decline, raising questions about who should be held to account for abuses in the industry.
In 2006, the government counted about 70 brick kiln factories nationwide. Ten years later, the number increased to about 400 factories, says Heang.
Today, there are still about 400 factories making bricks, but they’re getting larger in size, he adds.
Tharo, of labour rights group Central, suggests international real-estate developers and factory owners alike have a responsibility to make sure people making bricks work under safe conditions, with no child labour, are properly trained to use machinery, earn fair wages and have access to social and health benefits.
The Blood Bricks report identifies the use of bricks made by debt-bonded labourers in the foundations of eight Phnom Penh developments, including luxury condominiums, shops, hotels and office complexes.
Today, there are about 400 factories making bricks, but they’re getting larger in size
The construction projects in question were “mostly domestically-funded” but evidence of investment from the UK, US and Singapore was found in at least one case, the report says.
While the construction and real-estate sectors, and related building materials manufacturing, helped drive Cambodia’s 7.5% economic growth in 2018, and the nation’s official poverty rate continues to fall, about one in four Cambodians remain “vulnerable to falling back into poverty when exposed to economic and other external shocks,” according to the World Bank.
Srey Pheak’s parents, who had a microfinance loan of US$1,000 which they paid back with the loan from the brick factory owner, were able to avoid getting further into debt after her injury, likely as a result of the publicity the incident received and subsequent support from the government and factory owner.
The owner agreed to forgive the family’s US$3,500 debt and pay US$3,000 in additional compensation, Srey Pheak’s mother Channa says.
“Our loan is like a bond”
In late March, at the brick factory where Srey Pheak lost her arm, no one wants to talk. A man who says he drives an excavator at the worksite and a woman who did not state her position both decline interviews with New Naratif.
They only say that “the problem had been resolved”, adding that the owner was not present. The woman tells workers who live on the premises in shacks similar to Sothear’s not to speak with reporters.
But about a month later, factory manager Peng Leang tells New Naratif over the phone that most of the families who work there are “in debt with us.”
“They are never able to pay us the debt,” Leang says. “The contract [between workers and the factory] is that if they want to work elsewhere they need to pay the debt first.”
The arrangement suggests debt bondage, a form of modern-day slavery in which someone’s promise to work is used as collateral for a loan owed to an employer.
Besides violating international labour laws, debt bondage is included as a form of labour exploitation under Cambodia’s 2008 anti-human trafficking law. Violators of the law could face up to 15 years in prison, or up to 20 years if the victim is a minor.
In October 2018, when the Blood Bricks report was released, Chheang Suyheang, president of two brick kiln associations representing more than 100 factories in Kandal province, told the Phnom Penh Post that child labour did not exist in brick factories because authorities and local organisations prevented children from working. He did, however, suggest that bonded labour was the standard operating procedure.
“Their hands and feet do not fall into the machines or [get] cut off like before because there is no child labour in the brick [industry] and we do not allow minors to work,” Suyheang told the Post.
The brick factory representative said that every “brick family” had borrowed money from factory owners, who put them to work until their interest-free loans were paid off.
“Everyone is indebted in every brick factory [whether a lot or a little], because they borrowed money from the banks [or microfinance institutions] after their businesses collapsed,” according to Suyheang. “Then they borrowed from us to repay the bank as we do not charge any interest. In return, they have to work to repay their debt to us.”
“Our loan is like a bond so they cannot leave to work for other brick factories,” he said.
Official response: parents’ “carelessness”
In the last two years, officials have repeatedly denied cases of child labour and debt bondage at the nation’s brick factories.
According to the US State Department’s 2018 human rights report on Cambodia, “Although the [Cambodian] government initially denied the reports and threatened to prosecute individuals for defamation if the [Licadho] report was proven untrue, in May  the National Committee for Counter Trafficking reported it had shut down three brick factories for child labour violations and was investigating as many as 100 more.”
The US report says the nearly 60 inspectors employed by the Labour Ministry’s child labour department to cover the country’s 24 provinces and the capital began unannounced, although infrequent, inspections in 2017.
That year, authorities “imposed penalties on 42 occasions for child labour violations, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labour in the country,” the report says.
In addition, “thoroughness of inspections was questionable.”
Despite Licadho’s 2016 report and subsequent news reports of children working in brick factories, ministry inspectors who visited factories in 2017 “found no child labour violations.”
Officials have repeatedly denied cases of child labour and debt bondage at the nation’s brick factories
In an interview in mid-April, Veng Heang, director of the Labour Ministry’s child labour department, says the ministry has found no cases of child labour in the brick sector in recent years, nor debt bondage, or even instances of owners loaning money to their workers.
While Heang called child labour in the brick sector “one of the most sensitive and priority” issues for the ministry, Srey Pheak’s injury was ultimately the result of her parents’ “carelessness,” Heang says.
He claims Srey Pheak was not working alongside her mother but merely bringing her water before her arm was mangled in the machine.
The factory was “not involved with any debt bondage” or employing children, he says.
Inspectors had visited the factory twice before to disseminate information about the law and dangers of child labour to owners, managers and workers, Heang says. The owner had even warned workers about not allowing their children to work.
Therefore, what happened should be called an “incident”, not an “accident,” says Heang.
“Incidents still happen. It’s about the carelessness of the parents,” he says.
After Srey Pheak’s injury, the Labour Ministry facilitated the use of the National Social Security Fund to pay for her medical treatment, Heang says.
The official says the government is taking measures to protect children, including continuing to educate factory owners and workers about their responsibility to prohibit child labour and ensuring local authorities and community leaders monitor worksites and report labour violations.
The ministry counted about 400 children living at brick factory sites nationwide earlier this year, although the number fluctuates seasonally, Heang says. For those whose parents make bricks for a living, he adds, “the government doesn’t want children even to enter the workplace.”
A ministry directive dated 5 June 2019 reiterates existing laws, stating that brick factories found allowing child labour exploitation or debt bondage would face fines, factory shutdowns or criminal charges. The directive also instructs owners to separate work areas from on-site accommodations with fences and ensure children do not enter work areas or are forced to work to repay debts.
In a statement, released the week after the ministry directive, to mark World Day Against Child Labour, Licadho said the government must enforce existing laws in order to halt child labour at brick factories and “ensure not a single child is ever injured at these factories.”
“More important than issuing directives,” Licadho said, “the government must ensure enforcement of legal measures, including routine and stringent inspections, consistent engagement with brick kiln owners, and education of workers about the risks and criminal nature of child labour and debt bondage.”
Without the government taking “credible steps” against child labour and debt bondage, Licadho says “this brutal form of contemporary slavery will continue to exist in Cambodia.”
A child’s future
On a Wednesday in late March, Sothear, the brick factory worker and father of five, says he was only able to move two-thirds of the thousands of bricks he was assigned to load into a tractor-pulled cart that morning due to the heat.
“Now it is so hot so we cannot do the work,” Sothear says. “We wake up at 3am to do the work.”
He and his wife struggle to support their family, even though his children work too. “We are poor so the most important thing is money and we have many children so how can we support them?” he says.
Some of Sothear’s children, who help their parents by moving moulded bricks after school, are gathered around him while he shares his concerns outside their home, fronted by the red brick patio he laid.
“Today, we are thinking about our children’s future,” he adds. “We don’t know if they can continue their studies or not.”
Denial of education, frequent exposure to violence and other child rights violations often result from child labour
Denial of education, frequent exposure to violence and other child rights violations often result from child labour, according to Lucia Soleti, a child protection specialist at Unicef Cambodia.
In Unicef’s view, countering child labour effectively requires addressing the “full range of children’s vulnerabilities” by strengthening Cambodia’s child protection system at the national and local levels, Soleti writes to New Naratif in an email.
The focus should be on “a greater investment in social services, ensuring that the number of social workers is increased and provided with means of working to identify vulnerable children and provide vulnerable children and families with appropriate support and services,” she says. “Budget allocation for social services should be strengthened to increasingly protect children from child labour and keep them in school.”
In addition, Unicef recommended focusing on investing in programs that would “ensure access to health care, education and protection for disadvantaged and vulnerable children” and “work with brick factory owners on child safeguarding and protection measures and policies.”
Recommendations from Licadho and Blood Bricks include outlawing the payment-by-brick wage model, enforcing existing laws that prohibit child labour and debt bondage and even offering exemption from prosecution to factory owners that agree to cancel bonded workers’ debts.
The owner of the factory, Leang Srung, where Srey Pheak’s arm was crushed did forgive her family’s debt.
Thol Neang, director of the Kandal provincial labour department, says Srung also paid a fine to the department under the nation’s labour law, although he said he couldn’t recall the amount of the fine.
Heang, the child labour department director, tells New Naratif that Srung was fined under article 177 of the law, which sets the minimum age for wage employment at 15 and the age for hazardous work at 18.
Violations of the child labour provision carry fines of 31 to 60 days of the base daily wage, about US$10.
Under the law, the incident that resulted in Srey Pheak losing her right arm may have been resolved with a fine of about US$310 to US$600.
Neither Heang nor ministry spokesman Heng Sour answered questions about the specific amount of the fine and when it was issued or paid.
Srey Pheak left the Phnom Penh hospital and moved back to Kompong Cham province with her family in April. In May, the girl tells New Naratif that she is happy to be home. She wants to go to school once she recovers. She doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.
Channa, her mother, says she is hopeful for her daughter but sees how she has changed since the accident. Srey Pheak no longer mimics the precise hand motions of traditional apsara dancers she sees on television, bending back their wrists and fingers as they move their hands slowly and intentionally.
Her daughter used to really like dancing, Channa says, but without her right hand, she is very shy.
NOTE: *Sothear is a pseudonym used to avoid possible repercussions. The author reported on this story with a Cambodian journalist who requested their name not be included due to fears it could jeopardise their current job.
Additional reporting by Kong Meta
Source: New Naratif