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Harsh Regime of Child Labor, Debt Bondage Exposed in Cambodian Brick Factories


A Cambodian girl prepares bricks to dry under the sun light at a brick factory in Chheuteal village, Kandal province, some 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, May 2, 2011.

A Cambodian girl prepares bricks to dry under the sun light at a brick factory in Chheuteal village, Kandal province, some 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, May 2, 2011.

The use of debt bondage to retain workers in “contemporary forms of slavery” and child labor is widespread in Cambodia’s brick factories and authorities are making no efforts to eradicate the crimes, according to a new report by rights group Licadho.

On Friday December 2, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, Licadho published the report “Built on Slavery: Debt Bondage and Child Labor in Cambodia’s Brick Factories”.

The report was based on a study of Cambodia’s main brick production center to the north of Phnom Penh, Kandal and Tbong Khmom provinces. Eleven sites were identified, containing over 100 factories that employed thousands of workers. Around 50 workers, including adults and children, were interviewed between June and August 2016.

The report found that debt bondage is widely used by factory owners as a way of guaranteeing a long-term, cheap and compliant workforce. The factory owners secure the loans against a promise from employees that they will work in the factory until the loan is repaid.

The initial need to borrow money commonly arises as a result of a crisis such as sickness in the family or crop failure, and the starting loans are small, often only $200 to $300, the report detailed.

The pay in factories, however, is so low that workers struggle to earn enough to subsist let alone pay back their debt and many end up taking more loans from the factory owners. Over time, the debts grow and workers interviewed for the research owed sums ranging from $1,000 to $6,000, amounts that they will never pay off.

When debt reaches these levels, it can pass from one generation of a family to the next, and the study found some families with three generations all working to pay off the debt.

Many children are often forced to help their parents’ work because of the low rates of pay and a system of payment by piece, which means that with more family members joining the workforce, the number of bricks produced rises along with the family income.

Chhun Muyly, the owner’s daughter and general manager at Chhun Thor brick factory in Kdeychas village, Chroy Chanva district, told VOA Khmer on Friday that at her factory, like at others in the country, employees are working to pay off their debts.

However, she claimed the workers were in that position by choice, having asked before getting the jobs to receive a lump payment when they first started that they would then pay back during the job, rather than receiving a salary.

“Not only [at] my factory. When it is a brick factory, 100 per cent [of workers] have debts… For example, one person named A wants to work here. That doesn’t mean [they] want to work and get paid. That’s not how it is. They would say now lend me $1,000 or $2,000 and I will bring my children and my wife to work in the factory,” she explained.

Responding to reports of child labor, Muyly argued that it is like giving them a chance to help boost their family’s income, as their parents wouldn’t be able to afford to send them to school anyway.

“Normally I am an investor; I am the owner; I always think that if there is workforce to push work forward, that’s good. But for the parents, they also think that it’s good to make use of their child’s labor,” she said.

From an NGO’s perspective she said the employment of children is problematic because the children should be at school, “but if the family does not have ability to send them to school, they can’t study. How can they feed their kids? That’s how it is.”

Debt bondage and child labor are unlawful under Cambodian legislation as well as several international treaties that Cambodia is party to.

Licadho’s report also found that as a consequence of workers’ total dependence on the factory owners and their fear of reprisals, they are unwilling to challenge their working conditions or treatment, which frequently breach criminal and civil law, while the authorities responsible for enforcing the law take no steps to do so.

Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s monitoring manager, told VOA Khmer on Friday that factory owners should think about the ability of workers to pay back the debt when giving loans to them.

He added that giving loans to workers that they are unable to pay back becomes a thread tying them to the factory, explaining that some employees who have wanted to leave to get married have been forced to stay to pay off the debt.

“We can see that’s like slavery, [they have] no rights at all,” he said.

Regarding child labor, Sam Ath said factory owner should find a solution with parents to give workers’ children a chance to go to school, while working conditions should comply with the law.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour told VOA Khmer on Friday that he had not yet seen the report, while questioning its reliability.

He claimed that the ministry has been working with partner organizations on the issue of debt bondage and child labor and, according to the ministry’s observations, no such problems exist in the brick factory sector, while issues identified in agriculture and salt farming had already been solved.

Sour also criticized Licadho for not reporting the abuses to authorities when they encountered them.

“First, I want to know the purpose of the study. Second, I want to know their will in doing the report. Third, I want to know about the real mission of Licadho if they are a socially responsible NGO [that] respect human rights, wish to promote human rights [and] want to protect children’s rights or not? If so, they should not have kept it [to themselves]; they should have informed [authorities],” he said.

He said the ministry would look into the report and continue working with partner organizations to deal with the issue.

Later on Friday, the Ministry of Labor issued a press release claiming that it had taken action to investigate the allegations.

In its report, Licadho also highlighted the hazardous working conditions in brick factories and the appalling and unsanitary living conditions of factory housing.

It gave examples of severe injuries suffered by brick factory workers, including children, who have lost arms in brick factory machinery.

The report concluded that the combined practices of debt bondage and child labor are responsible for trapping multiple generations of families in a repeating cycle of poverty and servitude.

The beneficiaries of these practices, it said, are the factory owners who profit from a cheap and easily exploitable workforce.

The report called on the Cambodian government to take immediate steps to free all bonded brick factory workers by ordering the immediate cancellation of all existing debt. It also called on foreign governments to ensure that international investors are aware of the role played by debt bondage and child labor in the Cambodian construction industry, and to support the Cambodian government to bring about their elimination.

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