Cambodian children prepare bricks to dry under the sun light at a brick factory in Chheuteal village, Kandal province, some 27…
FILE - Cambodian children prepare bricks to dry under the sun at a brick factory in Chheuteal village, Kandal province, some 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2, 2011.

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Hundreds of children work in Cambodian brick factories, according to a survey by labor groups. A government spokesman denied the report's findings.

The Labor Ministry last year launched a campaign to end child labor in brick kilns and announced it would crack down on brick kiln owners that still employ children.

The survey found that almost 4,000 minors lived in the compounds of 464 operational kilns in the country, and that 638 children currently worked in them. The survey was conducted mainly in July by the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based worker rights organization allied with the AFL-CIO, an American labor federation, and the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia. 

Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said that the government's campaign had not significantly improved the situation.

The actual number of children working in the kilns is likely much higher due to the casual nature of the work, according to the report, a copy of which was seen by VOA.

"I don't think there's a clear distinction between those 600 or so and the 3,000-plus who actually live there," co-author Laurie Parsons said in an interview.

"In most cases, children will at least do some work. There are very few children, I think, above a certain age who have never touched a brick at all. There's always going to be times when the family is busy and there's a huge amount of orders to be completed, [when] the owners are putting on pressure or the family get paid by-brick rates, or they need additional money. There's just a huge amount of incentive to get more bricks done and to bring the children in to help."

FILE - A Cambodian man and his daughter move a cart loaded with bricks at a brick factory in Chheuteal village, Kandal province, north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2, 2011.

He said that the most common work for children at the factories was carrying bricks — for example, from drying spots to trucks — but also throwing clay into the manual molding machines.

"That’s obviously a major danger," he said.

In March 2019, a 10-year-old girl lost her arm when feeding clay into a machine.

Government response

Ministry spokesman Heng Sour categorically denied the findings, saying they were based on work done by "unprofessional researchers."

"There is no child labor in the brick factories," he said.

Sour said ministry inspectors had gone to every kiln in the country and found no cases of child labor. During those visits, he said, brick factory owners, managers and parents had signed consent forms saying that they would be subject to criminal liability if children were found to cross into the production line of the factories.

FILE - Cambodian laborers unload bricks at an under-construction luxury high-rise building complex in Phnom Penh, June 12, 2018.

However, even children who do not work at the kilns are exposed to many risks, Parsons said, including the extreme heat needed to burn bricks, toxic smoke from the fires in the kilns, and other toxic gases.

This means, he said, that children living at the factories are often severely dehydrated.

"So even if you’re not specifically working ... it’s an extremely unhealthy environment … That’s why everyone gets sick," he said.

Call for change

Sour admitted that children were living on the compound, but insisted none of them worked.
However, Tharo said that from his own observation, many children helped out their parents at the factories.

"Child labor still continues to exist … for generations and generations," he said.

Tharo said a holistic approach is needed to break the cycle of debt bondage, in which parents take up loans from factory owners to pay back previous debt and then pass on their debt through generations.

He pointed to the need to ensure that children at the kilns go to school, that stricter law enforcement exists, and that health and safety standards are met at the brick kilns, as well as that health insurance is provided for workers.