A girl stacks unfired bricks in a kiln at the state-run Prey Konkhla brick factory in Battambang, May 9.
ATTAMBANG – Sy Oeur was 12 years old when she dropped out of school in a desperate bid to keep her impoverished family afloat. Despite her age, she quickly found a job working ten-hour shifts in a brick factory for which she is paid 6,000 riels a day.
She says she doesn’t mind the long hours or dangerous work as she’s happy to be able to help her family.
Behind the glitz and glamour of Cambodia’s recent construction boom is an army of under-aged, under-paid workers such as Oeur. The surge in demand for cheap labor has prompted thousands of children, some as young as six, to abandon their schooling and accept hazardous work in factories or on construction sites.
A new research study released May 8 by local rights NGO Licadho and World Vision draws attention to the gross child rights violations that underpin Cambodia’s latest burst of economic development.
The study was launched in Battambang where an estimated 500 children are currently employed in the province’s 26 brick factories.
“Most of these children are forced to work at the brick kilns because of poverty,” Vann Sophath, deputy director of communication and advocacy for Licadho, told the Post at the launch.
Conditions in the brick factories meet the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) criteria for the “worst forms of child labor,” the report claims. Factory work hinders education opportunities – around 74 percent of child workers do not attend school – and carries health risks ranging from third degree burns from the kilns to respiratory problems from brick dust.
Factory owners “never pay for treatment” when their workers are injured on the job and very few factories have any safety procedures in place, said Sophath.
Protective glasses, helmets and work shoes were almost unheard of among the children interviewed, less than half of whom were wearing gloves, hats or masks during work. Fewer than 20 percent of the children interviewed in the report said they had received work safety information from their employers.
The most common tasks performed by children in brick factories include loading bricks to and from kilns, extracting and grinding clay, and operating machinery. Brick making machines are hazardous as hands or arms can be easily caught in the constantly grinding moving parts.
Children working at the brick kiln receive an average wage of 5,000 to 6,000 riel per day with children under ten years old receiving 1,000 riels.
“Work in the brick factory is quite hard but I do not have any choice because my family needs the money,” said Kouch Chantha, 14, who, like all his siblings, works weekend shifts at the factory.
“I actually do not want to come but I am forced to work here by my mother because if I don’t come here I will have nothing to eat,” he said.
Most children, particularly those of a very young age, begin work alongside their parents and 30 percent said they lived at the factory in which they worked with either their parents or other relatives.
Pressure from parents who rely on their children’s wages to provide for the family means many child brick factory workers are resigned to their fate, said Chea Ravy, a child welfare worker at World Vision’s drop-in center for child workers in Battambang.
“They have only known one thing their whole lives: How can they build a dream?” Ravy asked.
Many factories in Battambang are taking on more child workers due to the recent constriction boom, said Eng Soeur, the owner of Ponlok Thmey Brick Factory which currently employs 50 workers. February and March were particularly busy months this year as brick prices rose to 400 riel per brick and his factory reported average sales of 150,000 bricks per month.
Although Soeur himself does not allow children to work fulltime at his factory, he does now allow child workers on weekends and holidays.
The construction boom has also resulted in a higher percentage of females working in brick factories.
Sok Seth, director of the Ministry of Labors’ Prey Konkhla Vocational Training Center – which includes a state-run brick factory which employs children – estimates that 70 percent of child brick workers are girls as boys are needed for heavier work on construction sites.
“The regulation in my center is not to hire children to work but we cannot enforce it 100 percent because the children sometimes come along for work with the mother,” Seth told the Post during a visit to the center on May 9.
Seth stressed that parents, as well as the brick factory owners, need to consider more carefully the future of their children and the dangers they face in this kind of work.
However, he added that if factory owners ceased hiring children the earnings of many families would decrease markedly, which is why many parents are not happy with the work of NGOs who are trying to combat child labor.
An estimated 1.4 million Cambodian children between the ages of seven and 14, or more than 50 percent, are engaged in some for of labor, mostly in the agricultural sector, according to international agencies.