Formed wet bricks coming out of the molding machine for drying.
Not far from Phnom Penh, a few kilometers north along National Road 6, dozens of
brick factories are quietly turning out millions of bricks every day, fueling an
ongoing construction boom and providing employment to thousands.
More than 50 factories spread across the flatlands of Kandal province, some as far
north as Kampong Cham. Smaller factories can employ as many as 100 people, larger
ones 200 or more.
According to Yin Sam, deputy district governor of Muk Kampoul district in Kandal,
the first one opened sometime around 1994. In the post-UNTAC era, commercial demand
for bricks began to grow and the brick factories soon started to multiply.
Wearing a red krama and old, blue shorts, Nguon Mao, 41, is a typical brick factory
worker, one of thousands employed in the industry. He is dripping with sweat and
covered in dust. From early morning until late afternoon he drags hand carts full
of bricks at the Koh Roka brick factory.
He came from Prey Veng province more than two years ago with his wife and his 14-year-old
daughter. They all work for Koh Roka.
"This is good work for us," Mao says. "I have no land for farming,
and there is little work in my province. Now I'm busy and work hard every day."
In one day, Mao and his family can earn about 35,000 riel. Nearly half the money
is spent on food and daily essentials. The rest goes to his two other children back
in Prey Veng with his parents.
Since those early days in the mid-90s, the brick industry has continued to grow with
a robust and single-minded focus, without abatement nor diversification. Each factory
makes exactly the same brick from identical, mechanical molding machines.
In the dry season, most kilns fire every day; during the monsoon season, production
drops by half and so does the workforce.
Brick making typically occurs in three stages: forming and air-drying; loading and
firing; and cooling and unpacking.
Nothing but water is mixed with the clay. A brick takes 12 days to make, from the
initial shaping to cooling and unpacking The kiln is a long tunnel, with many able
to hold 200,000 bricks. Exhausted rubber-tree wood from Kampong Cham is packed around
the stacked bricks. The kiln is sealed, and the wood ignited from one end. The fire
moves through progressively. It is maintained by adding wood through access portals.
After two days, the bricks are cool enough to remove and deliver to customers. No
one could say the temperature of the kilns.
Kiln worker Rin (he didn't know his family name), 20, hauls loads of heavy bricks around on his cart in the heat.
Mrs. Sok Tieng owns the Ponleu Pich kiln, which opened in 2001 in Prek Anchagn commune.
She says the strongest demand for bricks comes in the dry season, when building construction
is at its peak.
Her kiln, she says, can produce 50,000 to 60,000 bricks per day. She sells bricks
for 70 riel each to dealers, and they truck them away to Phnom Penh, Pailin and Poipet.
When she started, Tieng says, it was a very profitable business. But now she faces
increasing competition from the many other kilns.
Still, things seem better for her than others. "We are increasing production
every day," she says.
The factories closest to Phnom Penh sit atop massive deposits of good quality brick
clay. But as the number of factories grew, kilns were built further away from the
motherlode. In a competitive market, the distance can create extra hurdles.
Further north, where Mao works, the Koh Roka kiln is finding it increasingly difficult
to get customers and maintain a healthy profit margin. The owner, who declined to
give her name, said she could manage no more than 100 workers, so she had to divide
them into work groups.
Prosperity seems to dwindle with each passing kilometer. In Prey Char village, Kampong
Cham, another kiln owner declined to give his name, but said his business is facing
bankruptcy. He cited rising fuel costs as the primary culprit.
"When the price of gasoline goes up," he says, "the price of everything
also rises, such as clay, wood and others. Before, one square meter of wood cost
10,000 riel, but now it's 15,000 riel. Before, a truck to deliver clay cost 15,000
riel, but now it's 18,000. Now there are a lot of kilns. I cannot keep my customers,
even if my price is good."
Along with Mao, his wife and his daughter, the factories provide work and accommodation
to many poor families from the provinces. It takes little skill, but pays little
money, and the work is physically demanding.
"They are from many provinces, and I did not know much about their background,"
says the boss at Koh Roka, talking about her employees. "I do not pay them a
monthly salary, but I pay them on how many bricks they produce," she said.
According to Tieng, it isn't easy being the boss either.
"To be a brick kiln worker does not take any prior knowledge," she says.
"Most of my workers are uneducated and come from poor families. The job of kiln
owner is very hard. I'm busy every day, and I have to look after the workers."
A brick kiln during progressive firing, which is fuelled by firewood from culled rubber trees. The portals are to check the fire and add wood if necessary. Temperatures are not measured.
Em Chamnan, 18, is from Svay Rieng province and works with Mao and his wife at Koh
Roka. She has worked at the kiln with her brother for three years, and sends much
of her salary back home to her parents.
"My family live in very difficult conditions," she says. "If I don't
work, we will have nothing to eat."
Chamnan has bigger dreams. She attended primary school and says she wants to study
again, but living conditions forced her to drop out of school and take a job.
She works hard every day and never complains, she says with a smile, because she
also has dreams for her five younger brothers and sister, still in Svay Rieng.
She wants them attend school and get a higher education.
"I don't want them to have a job like this," she says.
(Additional reporting by Sam Rith)