PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new government push to stamp out debt bondage and child labor in Cambodian brick kilns needs to be backed by a fresh commitment to enforcement, campaigners warned on Wednesday.
Cambodia’s Labour Ministry this week ordered provincial officials to inspect kilns and report those not complying with rules, and said anyone who brought a child on site would face criminal charges.
The move followed increased scrutiny of the rapidly-developing nation’s brick sector, in which tens of thousands of families work as slaves to serve a construction boom.
But the head of human rights group Licadho said the government had long failed to tackle abuses in brick kilns and needed to enforce existing rules before launching new initiatives.
“More importantly than just releasing directives, the government has to ensure enforcement including routine inspections, engage with brick kiln owners and educate workers about the risks,” said Naly Pilorge.
Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said the new instructions would “come into effect immediately”, though he would not put a timeframe on taking action against offenders.
“We have distributed the information through many channels, so the brick factory owners or operators cannot say they don’t know about this directive,” he said.
Cambodia’s brick industry is powered by a multigenerational workforce of adults and children trapped in debt bondage, according to a 2018 report by researchers at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London.
Kiln operators generally consolidate the debts of struggling farmers, who move on site with their families to work long hours in dangerous conditions, getting paid by the brick, said the report, titled “Blood Bricks”.
When the borrower dies or become unfit for work, their debt is forced upon their children, some of whom never leave, it added.
However, the authors of ‘Blood Bricks’ said that parents faced “impossible conditions” and had little choice but to bring their children to work.
“It is a regime of child labor which the factory owners, and the industry as a whole, are responsible for, not the parents,” Professor Katherine Brickell, one of the authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It is not that the parents want their children to work, but many feel little choice ... given everyday struggles to meet even the most basic of household needs.”
In March, a nine-year-old girl lost an arm while helping her parents load clay into machinery at a brick factory just outside Phnom Penh.
The family had been living on site for six years after the owner loaned them $3,500 - a sum they have barely been able to reduce, despite having the help of three children, the mother told local media following the accident.
The Labour Ministry fined the owner and is suing him for using child labor.
But that was a rare move and Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said the ministry needed to do more to enforce existing laws.
“The labor law already has a range of clear provisions relating to child labor, workplace inspections and health and safety standards that are evidently not being properly implemented,” he said.
“Unless there is a marked shift in the ministry’s approach, I do not believe the instructions will result in any significant steps being made toward resolving these issues.”
Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org