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
"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
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
"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
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."