Brick workers in southeastern Cambodia’s Kandal province are selling themselves and their families into slavery as “collateral” for debts they owe to factory owners, which can never be repaid due to the seasonal nature of their work, according to sources.
More than 100 brick factories operate in Kandal’s Muk Kampoul district, located around 30 kilometers (19 miles) outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, employing thousands of workers who labor throughout the dry season.
But while factory owners get rich off of the profits to be had feeding the thriving construction industry in the capital, workers labor under harsh conditions for measly pay that they say is barely enough to feed themselves and their families, let alone establish savings.
Many of the workers were initially employed elsewhere, but after receiving traditional loans through banks, agreed to transfer that debt to brick factory owners—who do not charge them interest and offer accommodations at the kilns—and work for them to repay it.
Others incurred debt after repeatedly taking loans offered by factory owners to supplement their income during the rainy season, when there is not enough sunlight to dry bricks and no work to be had.
Workers are regularly forced to bring their family members to labor at the factories to act as “collateral” for the debts they owe and can rarely pay off, and some have incurred debts so large that multiple generations have been required to toil at the brick kilns.
Ven Phea, the deputy chief of Chheu Teal village, in Muk Kampoul’s Prek Anhchanh commune, told RFA’s Khmer Service that there are 13 brick factories in her village, which mostly employ workers from neighboring Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces.
She said that many of the migrant workers had transferred debts with banks to brick factory owners under agreements which require that family members join them in working at the factories and cannot leave until the debts are satisfied.
“When they agree to take loans from factory owners, they must inform them as to the total number of their family members,” Ven Phea said.
“Workers must list all of their names and the amount they want to borrow. Let’s say they need [a loan]—how many people will come to work for them in return? Maybe four or five people … So these people will be named on an agreement to work in return for settlement of the debt,” she said.
“The owner will not agree if the worker wants to work elsewhere, unless they repay all their debts first.”
Most workers RFA’s Khmer Service spoke to asked to remain unnamed, citing fear of reprisals, but described the difficulties they endured earning a living at the kilns. Many said they received no fixed wage, but were instead paid according to the total number of bricks they made and that, due to the seasonal nature of their earnings, they would never have enough to fully pay back their debt.
Vin Mao told RFA she had been working at the same brick factory in Muk Kampoul since she was a child as part of a bid to pay off a large debt her parents incurred from the factory’s owner.
After more than 15 years, and now with two children of her own, she said she had saved nothing for herself and remained saddled with debt.
“I don’t have anything left, except debt,” Vin Mao said, while piling bricks into the bed of a truck, her skin stained red with clay.
“During the dry season, there is work to do and I can earn money to repay my debts. But during the rainy season, I don’t have anything to do, so I end up having to borrow more money [from the factory owner] to support my family.”
Another worker named Skoan Yun, who runs a factory’s kilns firing bricks, told RFA he had worked there since 1993, but had never earned more than enough to feed himself and his family.
He said his family members would like to find other work, but they cannot leave the factory because of the debt they owe to its owner.
“Let’s say that each rainy season [the owner] loaned us 700,000 riels (U.S. $174)—it takes 10 days for two people to finish the work needed to earn that 700,000 riels [and pay him back],” he said.
“Within that time, we each spend around 100,000 riels (U.S. $25) each [on supporting our families], so in the end we can never make enough to pay.”
In December 2016, local rights group LICADHO released a report on Cambodia’s brick factories, based on interviews with around 50 workers, which said the industry “relies on a workforce of modern-day slaves—multigenerational families of adults and children, trapped in debt bondage.”
“Debt bondage is widely used by factory owners as a way of guaranteeing themselves a long-term, cheap and compliant workforce,” the report says.
“Because of the low rates of pay and a system of payment by piece, children are often drawn into factory work alongside their parents,” it adds, noting that debt bondage and child labor are unlawful under Cambodian law and various international treaties.
Of the workers interviewed, LICADHO said the lowest debt incurred was around U.S. $1,000, though most reported owing between U.S. $2,000-3,000, and the highest debt reported was U.S. $6,000. Many said they had first gone into debt to pay medical bills, while others had borrowed money for farming and had been unable to repay because of crop failure, before transferring the debt to factory owners.
Am Sam Ath, the head of LICADHO’s investigation unit, recently told RFA that brick workers are treated like “slaves” by using them as collateral for debts that owners know will never be made whole.
“When laborers go to work [at brick factories], they don’t receive any work contract, only debt agreements,” he said.
“This means that the worker takes on debt and will have to work for the owner to repay it. Should they or their family members want to quit, they will have to settle all of their debts first. If they don’t honor their debts, the owner will threaten them with a lawsuit—several workers have already been subject to such threats.”
Am Sam Ath said that the government could eliminate debt bondage in the brick industry by setting a minimum wage for brick workers, similar to what exists for workers in the country’s highly profitable garment industry, instead of allowing them to be paid by brick.
He also called on the government to prevent factory owners from allowing workers to take on too much debt, which could cause them to default on loans over the course of several generations.
Veng Hieng, the director of Cambodia’s Department of Child Labor under the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, told RFA that the country’s laws prohibit the transfer of debt from parent to child, or other members of the family’s next generation.
He said that the use of family members as loan collateral is “not how Cambodia’s brick industry operates,” but that if such cases do exist, they should be reported to the authorities, who will “take action in accordance with the law and arrest the perpetrators.”
“At our ministry, we take all efforts to carry out correct measures in terms of conducting inspections [of all industries],” he said.
“The brick industry is a minor sector, but there is no slavery—or debt bondage that can be referred to as a kind of slavery—within the sector. Generally, owners take stringent measures. Otherwise, they will be subjected to warnings, fines or have their businesses shut down.”
In LICADHO’s report, the group called brick factory conditions “hazardous,” said accommodations at the facilities are often “unsanitary,” and noted that accidents regularly occur at work sites. It said lax government oversight means that laws regulating the industry are not enforced and owners routinely go unsanctioned.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.