The use of debt bondage to trap workers in “modern day slavery” is widespread in many of Cambodia’s brick-making factories, indicates research by rights group Licadho, whose findings suggest the Kingdom’s recent building boom is built on the illegal practice.
In a report released today titled Built on Slavery: Debt Bondage and Child Labour in Cambodia’s Brick Factories, the organisation documents the exploitation of both adults and children at factories in Tbong Khmum, Kandal and Phnom Penh, which every day funnel tens of thousands of bricks to construction sites around the capital.
Through interviews with about 50 workers, Licadho found all but one were working to pay off loans of between $1,000 and $6,000 provided by owners, who used bondage to guarantee a “long-term, cheap and compliant workforce”, the authors argue.
Paid “by piece” rates – cash per brick amounting to between $2 and $10 per day – the labourers were often unable to repay the money, leaving them trapped in perpetual servitude and poverty.
Further, the debt bondage – which is illegal under Cambodian and international law – has ensnared multiple generations of the same families, a major reason for the prevalence of child labour in the hazardous industry, according to the report, released to coincide with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.
Visits by the Post to two brick factories this week confirmed the practice appeared widespread. One factory owner ac-knowledged that some businesses, on the lookout for good workers, would even poach labourers from other sites by acquiring their debts.
Noting authorities were well aware of the practice, the report calls on the government and other stakeholders – such as international construction companies buying the cheap bricks – to end “impunity” for brick factory owners.
“Until this occurs, this brutal form of contemporary slavery will continue to flourish inside Cambodia,” the authors state.
As Phnom Penh expands upwards and outwards, brick production has surged, with Licadho focusing on 11 clusters of factories north of the capital along national roads 5 and 6, totalling more than 130 individual sites and thousands of workers.
Many of those drawn into the industry usually accrue debt in their local village to neighbours or money lenders, often because of health emergencies or crop failures, the report explains. Unable to pay, they transfer their debt to factory owners, whose offers of no-interest loans that can be paid off through work often spread via word-of-mouth.
Such was the case for 59-year-old Von Pho, a former vegeta-ble and rice farmer from Kandal province’s Muk Kampoul district, who now earns about $2 a day stacking and moving bricks and carting firewood for kilns at a small factory in Prek Anhchanh commune.
The mother of two, whose children also work at brick factories, started working at the site about three years ago after she was unable to pay a debt to neighbours borrowed to buy food.
Like most of her co-workers – comprising about five families living in ramshackle corrugated iron shacks on the property’s edge – she remains in debt to the owner, owing $150, which she says she’s made little progress in paying.
“I can work here but won’t pay the debt for 10 or 20 years,” Pho told the Post yesterday as she loaded a cart with firewood together with her son-in-law.
“I earn around 8,000 riel [about $2]. It depends on how much I can do. I get 3 riel per brick, so to get 30,000 riel, it would be 10,000 bricks, and to get that I’d almost die. But I don’t know what else to do. I have no choice. It is not enough for eating, but besides this, I don’t know what else there is.
“If I had money, I could pay the boss at any time, but if not I will work here until I carry a stick,” she said, picking up a stick and mimicking the motions of an elderly person using a cane.
No place for children
Amid the machinery used to process clay and the kilns heated to between 900 and 1,200 degrees centigrade to bake bricks, work at the factories remains extremely hazardous, with accidents and injuries occurring frequently, notes Licadho.
Paying per piece, rather than regular salaries, created “considerable incentive” for children to work alongside parents in order to make more money, stated the report, which said child labour was “common” in the industry.
Though Article 177 of Cambodia’s Labour Law sets 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work, researchers interviewed eight children working at the sites it investigated, who were mostly between 13 and 15 years old, though also witnessed some as young as 9 labouring and operating machinery.
The Post also witnessed young children hauling firewood. On Wednesday, worker Kong Sophat said he started working in brick factories at 15 years old to earn money for his family.
The 32-year-old – who earns about $5 a day stacking bricks into the factory’s 13 kilns – said he currently owed the owner $300, though said it was not a problem as he’d been able to pay off previous debts.
He, however, had paid a higher price: his right arm, which was amputated after being caught in a machine that crushes clay a few years ago. Licadho has investigated three cases of children losing arms in the past two years.
Though his two children are too young to work at the factory yet, Sophat said he was unsure what options they had. “I don’t want my children to work here, but it depends on whether we can afford anything better,” he said.
Despite being outlawed by international treaties, debt bondage persists around the world. A 2015 report by the International Labour Organization estimated there were 20.9 million victims of forced bonded labour globally between 2002 and 2011.
Owners and patrons
The practice, Licadho says, directly contravenes Article 12 of the Kingdom’s Law on the Suppression of Human-Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which concerns “unlawful recruitment”, and criminalises the act of buying, selling or exchanging an individual.
Unable to make ends meet, workers often borrow more money from owners or take on bigger debts at new factories and switch sites. Licadho interviewed one woman who owed $3,000 after changing factories 10 times.
Speaking to the Post on Wednesday, the manager and owner of Pho’s and Sophat’s factory, brother and sister, respectively, defended the use of use of bonded labour.
“If they borrow outside, they need to pay interest, but if they come to borrow from us, for example $1,000, we don’t get interest,” the owner, who called herself Eng, said. “What’s important is that they work for us.”
Claiming her business was close to bankruptcy, Eng said it was often her who was cheated, estimating she had provided $10,000 in loans to workers who absconded.
“For example, during traditional festivals, they asked us to go home and never returned,” she said, adding some of the workers were “spoiled” and drank too much.
Licadho’s report found many brick factory labourers see factory owners as benevolent patrons and are thus less likely to criticise and push for better conditions. However, others had been threatened and told they would be arrested if they left. Licahdo cited one example of police compelling a worker to return to a factory.
Eng said she didn’t hunt down missing workers, though some factories kept networks to discover if their labourers turned up at another site. She said some owners actively sought out hard workers at rival factories and provided them money to pay off their debt to lure them across, often imposing even harsher conditions for fear of someone else doing the same.
“If they’re happy with a worker, they put more restrictions on him – like a worker having to pay multiple times the debt if they want to pay it off,” she said, adding her factory “doesn’t do that”.
Nearby at the Ponleu Preah Atith Brich Kiln factory – where more than 100 workers labour behind a high wall topped with metal spikes – Samnang* and his wife find themselves trapped in such a situation.
Told only one of them can take leave at once, and only with permission, the pair moved to the factory a year ago after an insect infestation ruined their farm in Kampong Cham province. They took a $1,000 loan to pay their debts. Over 12 months, they have paid off $200, despite mostly working seven days a week.
Fed up with the work, Samnang once proposed selling some of his cows to clear the family’s debt, only to be told the amount would be double. “The boss didn’t take that money back, if it’s taken, it must be multiplied. The boss needs a workforce,” he said.
Contacted by phone, however, the owner, who refused to give their name, denied this. “There is nothing like that at my place. If they are in debt, they just work here and earn money,” said the woman, who soon hung up on reporters.
To mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, UN anti-slavery experts this week released a statement condemning “modern slavery”, particularly the exploitation of children.
Chair of the UN’s voluntary fund on contemporary forms of slavery, Nevena Vuckovic-Šahovic, and the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola, said the practice “cannot continue to be tolerated”.
Licadho researchers found commune and police officials were “well aware” of the practice but took no action, and had been reluctant to pursue cases where children were injured.
Although finding no evidence of direct bribes, the report noted staff had witnessed gifts of “beer, food and money” given to officials by factory owners.
Among Licadho’s recommen-dations is a government order cancelling the debt between brick factory owners and workers, which would include amnesty from prosecution for businesses that complied.
They also called for tougher enforcement and more frequent inspections by the Ministry of Labour, whose spokesman did not reply yesterday to a request for comment. The chief of the National Police’s anti-trafficking unit was also unreachable.
“The main problem is a passive government,” said labour rights advocate Moeun Tola, who said though some emphasis was placed on the lucrative garment sector by the Labour Ministry, construction sites and brick factories were largely overlooked. “I don’t think change will come soon, unless we eliminate or reduce the corruption.”
*Names changed to protect anonymity