How we uncovered child labour in Cambodia’s brick kilns

Wednesday, 26 February 2020 09:32 GMT

Children run towards a forklift at a brick kiln in Kandal district, Cambodia, on January 23, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg

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The Thomson Reuters Foundation investigated child labour at Cambodia's brick kilns after the government said all furnaces were free of underage workers

The row of brick kilns was hidden from sight, off the paved roads and at the end of an unsigned dirt track to nowhere else. Two previous attempts to find them had failed, but the third paid off thanks to a chance encounter with an off-duty cop.

"There, you will find children working," he told me, a reporter for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, giving directions to the patch of land where over a dozen hot and dusty brickyards pump out the foundations of Cambodia's construction boom.

I was on the lookout for child labour, almost a year after the government banned children from making bricks and vowed to inspect kilns nationwide to ensure there were no kids on site.

EXCLUSIVE: Expose reveals child labour in Cambodian brick kilns despite crackdown

"Go and look," the cop said. "See if the bosses even let you come inside, then report back and tell me what you have seen."

When I asked why he - a police colonel - had done nothing to help remove children from the dangerous production lines, he explained his official role and said: "It's not my business."

He appeared to care about children being forced into labour to service family debts, but his revelations suggested he thought reporters were in a better position to help than he was.

A young male walks past a hot kiln at a brick factory in Kandal Province, Cambodia, on January 23, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg

Either way, his directions were good - and his predictions on point. Bosses turned me away at the gates of most of the dozen or so brickyards, some as children stacked bricks on carts or pushed the loads around. Asked about the ages of the young labourers, one boss said they were "older than they look."

When bosses did let me on site, most children downed tools, seemingly aware that they shouldn't be at work. Two boys who looked no older than 14 said they were 18, before their boss asked me to leave.

In the early evening, I was able to meet brickworking families at their homes - rows of single-room corrugated iron shacks on stilts, adjacent to production areas - where they explained how they became enslaved at the brickyards.

Most families had taken multiple loans from bosses, debts that grow faster with high interest than they could be repaid.

Some moved to the brick yards as children, an extra set of hands to help their parents back into the black, but had gone on to start families and put their own kids to work - three generations side-by-side servicing the same insurmountable debt.

A young male shovels smoldering ash out of a kiln at a brick factory in Kandal Province, Cambodia, on January 23, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg

WHITE BECOMES BLACK

I was gathering material on child labour and debt bondage to publish alongside results from a survey of working conditions in Cambodia's brick kilns carried out by a local workers union.

Shortly before the survey was published, however, things got complicated.

The labour ministry, which had not replied to requests for comment for months, suddenly announced that it, too, had completed a survey of the almost 500 brick kilns in Cambodia.

They found no child labour or debt bondage, contradicting what I, the workers union, and plenty of others - from foreign academics to local activists - had witnessed firsthand.

At the time, Cambodia was trying to avoid economic sanctions from the European Union and United States over its record on human rights, including child labour, so the stakes were high. With harsh trade union laws in place and "fake news" laws being mooted by a one-party government that is hostile toward critical human rights defenders, the union was in a tenuous position.

It delayed publication pending talks with the government, whose comments will be integrated into the report, but some media outlets were able to access and publish the raw data.

One senior union official pushed hard for the report to be released in full because, he said, publicising the issue was the first step toward preventing the next generation of children being born into hereditary debt.

Young males clear debris from the mouth of a moulding machine at a brick factory in Kandal Province, Cambodia, on January 23, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg

Regardless of the evidence, the government would publicly deny the problem exists, the official said, using the popular Khmer idiom "take white and make it black" - as was proven in the case of a 10-year-old girl who lost her arm in a brick-moulding machine last year.

At the time, the girl's parents admitted she was a regular helper on the production line. The kiln owner was fined and the labour ministry launched a criminal lawsuit.

But earlier this month, while presenting findings from the government sweep of the country's brick kilns, a labour ministry official said the girl had been bringing water to her working mother when she accidentally put her arm in the machine.

As she was not a member of staff, the girl was not entitled to social security but the government covered her medical bills.

"This shows how much attention we pay to the well-being of our people," the official told the gathering of sector stakeholders.

For the mothers and fathers who do put their children to work, official denials are just one more kick in the teeth for a section of society that exists separately from the rest.

Many said they had little hope of overcoming their debts and returning to life outside the walls of the brick factory; others said that freedom would be wasted on them.

"What do you suggest for us?" asked one mother of three.

"Where should we go? Some of us have been here our entire lives," she added. "We know nothing but making bricks."

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