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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hard labor: Children at risk in brick factories

Hard labor: Children at risk in brick factories


A boy sits in a cart in a brick factory outside Phnom Penh. Cambodia's building boom has increased the prevalence of child labor at brick factories, experts say. Now, two programs are being launched to eliminate the hazardous practice and to help infants who live amid the unsafe environment.

The prevalence of child labor in Cambodia's brickmaking industry is increasing due

to a nationwide construction boom driven by the explosive growth of tourism, experts

have told the Post.

With funding from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the government plans

to launch two programs to eliminate child labor in the brickmaking sector. Next month

the campaigns will begin in Kampong Cham, where more than 5,000 children are working

in the industry, and Siem Reap, where new hotel projects have spurred demand for

inexpensive building materials.

"There is a lot of child labor working in brick factories in Phnom Penh, too,

but due to limited funding, we can only focus on Kampong Cham and Siem Reap first,"

said Veng Heang, cabinet director of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training


Additionally, the Australian Embassy-funded PACT Against Child Labor is starting

its own program to eradicate child labor in Phnom Penh brick factories. According

to Chuon Mom Thol, president of PACT Against Child Labor, there are at least 5,000

children working in more than 55 brick factories around the capital.

Cambodia's Labor Law sets the general minimum working age at 15 years, but allows

children aged 12 to 14 to do "light" work that is not hazardous to their

health and does not interfere with their schooling. The law sets a minimum age of

18 for work that could be hazardous to health, safety or morality.

The ILO classifies brick-making as extremely hazardous work. A recent report by the

ILO found that extruding machines in brickworks lack safety devices, and that child

workers are often sent inside kilns to remove bricks when the temperature is still

dangerously high.

"The working conditions are very bad," the Labor Ministry's Heang said.

"It's dangerous to children. They break their legs and feet when moving clay

into machines."

The horrific and all-too-common injuries inflicted on children working in brick factories

are well documented. But even with such knowledge, families and factory owners continue

to employ child workers, many of whom receive no compensation when injured, maimed

or worse.

"I am not sure, but I think it is very unlikely for them to get compensation

under the circumstances in Cambodia," said Menacherry Paul Joseph, chief technical

adviser to the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.

In June, a 9-year-old boy lost one of his arms when it was smashed under the stone

crusher he was operating at a brick factory. The boy received compensation only after

the incident came to the attention of news media and NGOs, according to DanChurchAid


There have been two other serious child labor accidents in Phnom Penh recently. One

victim lost a leg, the other a hand, according to PACT's Mom Thol.

"We asked $5,000 for compensation, but they only gave $3,000,"Mom Thol

said. "The children were in the hospital for two months and their employers

were held responsible for the medical fees. The victims went back to their home town

to run a small business with the money."

According to Mom Thol, employers are often reluctant to pay, and generally claim

that they cannot afford to provide compensation. Insurance is not an option.

"Now there are fewer accidents in Phnom Penh. Maybe because we told the employers

that they had to pay at least US$5,000 for each victim. And last year, 18 factories

were fined millions of riels by the government," Mom Thol said.

Heang confirmed that the MLVT has been active in fining child-labor abusers, and

that without government intervention compensation is scarce.

"Compensation that comes from private discussions is usually limited,"

he said. "But if the government forces employers [to pay more], it would be

a lot."

Khou Heng, owner of a brick factory on Route 6 that produces more than one million

bricks every month, said that using children for labor is not cost-effective and

that the government has been increasingly vigilant.

"Child workers bring many problems," he said. "They are careless and

get hurt easily. Before I opened the factory, the government gave me some documents

to read to understand the law, so I don't hire child laborers."

Heng told the Post that the two brick factories neighboring his hired child labor.

The Post saw youngsters working at the factories, but the owners refused to be interviewed.

Heng said many children come to his factory to ask for a job and many are obviously

lying about their age. Heng employs between 60 and 70 workers. Most of the employees

live on the factory grounds with their entire families, including in many cases young

children and infants. He insists that the children do not work in the brickworks,

but concedes that the environment is both unsafe and unhealthy.

"Owners of brick factories usually do not demand that children work, but children

who are living in brick factories may help their parents - then accidents occur,"

Heang said. "Some parents just are not aware of the dangers."

Heng said parents working at his brick factory did not care about their children

because they lacked education.

The day the Post visited, dozens of children were seen living in his factory with

their parents, most were naked and their whole bodies coated by dust, sand and industrial

grime. Groups of children ranging from infants to adolescents were playing on and

around heavy machinery and close to the searing heat of giant open-fire kilns.

"I provide them with clean water to wash their children, but they just don't

care," Heng said.

In Kampong Cham, 70 percent of the child laborers were between 13 and 17 years old;

8 percent were aged 7 to 9. Seventy-five percent of the children worked seven days

a week and their monthly income varied from 10,000 to 100,000 riel, according to

the ILO report.

The ILO listed the tasks of child brick-workers as kneading soil with water and clay,

filling brick moulds with soft paste, drying bricks in the sun, putting bricks into

a kiln, putting wood in the kilns, taking bricks out of the kiln, and loading finished

bricks on to trucks.

The ILO considers these tasks "extremely hazardous" and claims that they

place children at grave health risks - including debilitating injury and respiratory

and skin problems.

It is also reported that almost 20 percent of child brick-workers said they often

got fevers, headaches and coughs. Nearly half of the children said they did not like

being a brick-maker.

"The owners do not realize that they are doing something wrong," said the

ILO's Joseph. "They think they are doing something good because they offer a

job to poor children. So, when children come and ask for a job, they won't even ask

how old they are. Most of the time, parents find this kind of job for their children,

or children go to ask for a job - it's not the owners calling for child labor."

Joseph said that there is no financial difference for owners to hire child labor

or adult labor because they are paid by piece rate.

"They like hiring child laborers because they are more flexible and obedient;

they can force them to do more," Joseph said. "The government has an obligation

to stop the worst form of [child labor]. Most importantly, it needs to be a joint

effort of the government, NGOs and trade unions to arouse the awareness of the owners

that hiring childen is not a good thing."

Although the Labor Law forbids children under 15 to do hazardous work, including

brick making, "it is only applied to organized factories," Joseph said.

The MLVT's Heang agreed: "There is a lack of law control of small enterprises

- it's difficult to enforce the law," he said.

Joseph said a law which will cover small household brickworks will be passed soon.

Heang said the MLVT would then send out child-labor inspectors to brick factories

to withdraw the children. "We will talk things over with their parents and send

them to schools," he aid. "Their school fees will be funded by the NGOs.

They can finish high school as long as the funding is sufficient."



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