For more than a decade, Sopheap, 38, has worked in brick kilns — facing a seemingly endless cycle of debt.
“First, I owed only 50,000 riels (about $12.50) but it has now increased to $2700,” she said in a recent interview. “We owed little by little, so when we couldn’t earn enough income, we had to get more loans.”
For five years, she has owed money to her latest employer — a brick kiln in Phnom Penh’s Prek Anhchanh commune.
“Right now, I can earn about 500,000 to 600,000 riels ($150),” she said. Each month she tries to pay about $35 to pay off a $2700 loan. So far she has paid $500, but medical care, childcare, food, and living often make it difficult to scrounge together monthly payments. At her current rate, it would take Sopheap more than 5 years to repay the loan. But Sopheap is bonded to her debt. If she tried moving to a new kiln, she would be forced to take a new loan from the new owner to pay off the old one.
While the Cambodian government in recent years has insisted it is committed to cracking down on debt bondage at the nation’s notorious brick kilns, it remains stubbornly persistent. The pandemic and economic blow to Cambodia’s poorest, meanwhile, has made conditions ripe for an expansion of what rights monitors call a modern form of slavery.
At Cambodia’s brick kilns, debt bondage has frequently gone hand in hand with child labor as desperate families enlist their children to help carry loads, make bricks, or whichever piecework tasks the parents earn a living from.
Sopheap’s work is arduous, though far from the most dangerous form of kiln work. Each morning she wakes up at 3:00 am to carry bricks from the kiln into trucks. She earns $5 for each filled truck. One truck holds about 10,000 bricks; most days she can fill only a single truck.
While the kiln owner doesn’t allow children to work there, many help their parents informally, said Sopheap and other workers interviewed. In 2012, her stepson, then 10 years old, dropped out of school to help the family. In later years her older daughter, now 18, lent a hand as well.
“He was just helping lightly with the work of carrying the bricks because we were not earning much money,” Sopheap said.
“We have a poor livelihood, so we don’t know what else to do,” she said. “My son told me that he helped my work to get more money to pay off our debt to the brick owner.”
Earlier this month, the U.S Department of State released its Trafficking in Person (TIP) annual report. It noted that more than 10,000 Cambodians, including nearly 4,000 children, work in brick kilns, where owners carry out “multigenerational debt-based coercion, either by buying off their preexisting loans, or by requiring them to take out new loans as a condition of employment or to cover medical expenses resulting from injuries incurred while working,” the report alleged.
“Labor ministry officials continued to deny the existence of child labor — including forced child labor — and debt-based coercion within the brick industry. The Ministry of Labor visited 62 out of 486 brick kilns in 2020, but the purpose of these visits was to raise awareness about child and forced child labor; none of the visits resulted in issuance of penalties or other such punishments for violations of labor or anti-trafficking laws, ” the report added.
Khun Tharo, program coordinator at labor rights organization Central, said there was little doubt that child labor continued at the kilns despite the Ministry of Labor’s inspections.
“The exploitation of child labor still continues at brick kilns, as well as debt bondage,” he said.
He noted that there have been no instances where abusive employers had been seriously punished, which meant the situation was unlikely to change.
“There is no legal instrument to push employers to implement good working conditions,” he added. “It is important to have a legal instrument.”
Employers, he said, continue to use loans as a way to keep workers employed with them, in spite of dangerous conditions, low wages, and workplaces that frequently violate the labor law.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said COVID-19 had left workers with even higher debts — with many taking out additional loans from private microfinance institutions.
“The child labor continues to happen even if there is ban from brick owner because when children live with parents, they will help to work,” he explained.
He called on the government to consider setting up a legal framework for brick workers to pull them out of debt and stop kiln owners from issuing loans.
Asked about the allegations made by rights monitors and in the TIP report, Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said: “We don’t have any comment on the pretext statement. We are doing what we can do based on reality and Cambodian culture. Some western living standards and cultures are completely different from us and they want us to follow their culture or way of living.”
Kandal provincial labor department director, Thol Neang, denied that child labor exists at the 60 kilns in his province.
“There are no children working at brick kilns,” he said. “We do not allow children to go inside the compound of brick kilns,” he said, adding that while children are allowed to live with their parents nearby, they cannot go on site.
The drop in construction during the pandemic has sent the price of bricks plummeting, affecting both owners and workers, according to Na Vanny a foreman at a brick kiln in Kandal’s Mok Kampoul district.
At his kiln, which produces about one million bricks per month, one brick previously sold for 250 to 300 riels but now sells for just 200 riels, he said.
“Now there is not much loan money [for workers], even if they are wanted a lot of money, the brick owner won’t give because he is afraid they will run away,” he said, adding that most workers owe about $100 to $200 to the kiln owner.
Workers said an already troubling situation had been badly exacerbated by the pandemic, during which a decrease in construction has seen a decrease in demand for bricks.
An, 31, makes a living carrying wood for a Phnom Penh kiln, for which she earns $25 to $50 a week.
“We can’t save money because I have to spend every day,” An said, adding that the number of brick buyers had decreased.
“Now we don’t have a lot of work to do,” she said. An currently owes the kiln owner about $300, after taking out more loans during the pandemic.
“Our debt has increased because we keep borrowing, as we do not have much work,” she said.
“We are worried that we do not have money to pay off our debt and we have a difficult livelihood.”
While An, who has worked at the kiln for about a decade, has avoided having her 5-year-old and 9-year-old children help out, she said she has seen other kids at work. “My kids are small and even if they wanted to help, they can’t lift up heavy wood,” An said.