PHNOM PENH - A few seconds were all that it took to change ten-year-old Srey Pheak’s life forever. When she reached into the brick machine to clean off some clay, she got trapped. The machine quickly pulled her arm in, like it would with clay, and crushed it.
“When the incident just happened, inside the ambulance, she asked me: ‘Mum, my hand is chopped. When I recover, will it regrow?’ I told her yes,” her mother Khim Channa recounts in the hospital while holding her daughter in her arms.
But Srey Pheak’s arm won’t regrow, and her mother was unable to hold back her tears in the ambulance, she tells Voice of America. “I was crying, and she told me ‘mummy, don’t cry. I survive. It’s just the hand that’s chopped, I still have life in my body.’ She comforted me. It’s not me who comforted her,” the 34-year-old mother recounts, tears welling up in her eyes.
While Channa tells how Srey Pheak lost her arm, her daughter is unable to speak. She is in visible pain, and where her arm was is now a patch of bandages. Drugged with pain killers and medicine, she can only stare into space, sometimes whimpering. It has been five days since the accident.
Channa and her whole family lived and worked at a brick kiln factory in Kandal Province. Two of her three children — 12 and 10 years old — would help out for an hour or two a day, Channa says, to support the family’s income. Mother Channa and father Chheng Bunham together earned about $5 to $6 a day, barely enough to feed their family.
“She came to help me because she saw that I’m very tired and very hardworking,” she says while caressing her daughter’s back. “I feel regret, but it’s too late now.”
They moved to the factory about six years ago to take up a loan from the brick kiln owner to buy some land in their home province Kampong Cham. But instead of being able to pay off the $3,500-heavy loan, they worked hard every day just to sustain themselves.
Laurie Parsons, a researcher at Royal Holloway University of Livelihoods and co-author of study Blood Bricks: Untold Stories of Modern Slavery and Climate Change from Cambodia, said brick kiln owners attracted workers by offering to pay off loans they had taken up elsewhere. The workers were told they could pay back by working for the factory owners. On average, he said, workers owed just under $800 to the brick kiln owners, but also loans of up to $5,000 were not uncommon.
In that sense, Channa’s case was unusual, he said, as she hadn’t been indebted before working at the factory. But she shared the common fate of many brick kiln workers: not being able to pay off the debt over years.
Parsons explained that the workers were paid by the number of bricks they produced. As brick production was much more difficult during rainy season with clay not being able to dry quickly, brick workers had to take up additional loans during that period and found themselves trapped in debt bondage.
But while Channa regrets having let Srey Pheak work, she did not blame the owner for her daughter’s accident in March.
She said he had reminded them not to let their children work, and had now said he would cover the medical expenses, as well as school tuition fees, and waive her debt.
Parsons said most brick kiln workers felt positively toward factory owners as they were repeatedly told that the owners were doing them a favor by letting them work to pay off their loans. “The brick kiln owners [say] that they don’t have to do it, but they do it out of the goodness of their heart,” he said.
Channa said at least five other children were also working at the same factory.
The factory owner could not be reached for comment.
While authorities initially denied the existence of child labor, the Labour Ministry has now fined the factory and started a lawsuit against the owner.
But Parsons said more far-reaching reforms that addressed the causes of child labor — debt bondage being a main factor — had to be implemented. One way would be for the government to extend the minimum wage beyond the garment industry to include brick factories.
Ministry of Labour spokesperson Heng Sour said in a message to VOA that “we work on this with stakeholders,” without elaborating further.
For Srey Pheak, this will come too late. “My daughter suddenly got very angry,” Channa says, explaining that her daughter could neither drink nor eat because of the medicine. “She said: ‘okay mum, I’m very sick, but I can’t eat, so just let me die then.’”
While her mother does not know when they will be ready to leave the hospital, she says she knows one thing: she now wants to send her daughter to school. “I will tell her to study because now that she is handicapped, going to school will help her with the future,” she says.