Cambodia construction boom built on ‘blood bricks’ and slavery, report reveals

Boats are pictured along the river near new buildings under construction in Phnom Penh April 25, 2018. — AFP pic
Boats are pictured along the river near new buildings under construction in Phnom Penh April 25, 2018. — AFP pic

PHNOM PENH, Oct 16 — Cambodia’s construction boom is built in part with “blood bricks” manufactured by modern-day slaves, including children, researchers said today.

Poverty fuelled partly by climate change has pushed tens of thousands of Cambodian families into bonded labour in the booming capital, according to a report by Britain’s government and the Economic and Social Research Council.

“Tens of thousands of debt-bonded families in Cambodia extract, mould and fire clay in hazardous conditions to meet Phnom Penh’s insatiable appetite for bricks,” the authors said.

“Kiln owners repay farmers’ debts and offer a consolidated loan. In return, farmers and their families are compelled to enter into debt bondage with the kiln owner until the loan is repaid.”

Families surveyed had agreed to pay back loans of between US$100 (RM416) and US$4,000. The average was US$712 — a fortune in a country where the average annual income is US$1,230, according to the World Bank.

Those pushed into debt bondage often earned far less than the average, with climate change hitting harvests and pushing farming families into debt.

Cambodia is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, but inequality remains stark — two-bedroom apartments in the capital were up for sale at prices of US$260,000 and up, more than 200 years’ wages for the average Cambodian, the report said.

Workers reported “respiratory illnesses driven by the inhalation of kiln fumes and brick dust without protective equipment, and limb amputation resulting from unsafe brick-moulding machinery”.

When workers need to leave to seek medical treatment or for other reasons, they must go without their families to ensure they return, the report said.

Cambodia’s labour minister released a statement last week warning businesses, including brick kilns, against using child labour and other forms of exploitation such as debt bondage.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) said working standards in construction had been neglected as advocacy groups and the government focused on the garment sector, a key driver of the economy.

Chuong Por, who coordinates the ILO’s construction industry work, said the building boom had not so far attracted much attention.

“In the brick kiln sector, actually there is not enough inspection. That’s why we cannot find out all the problems in the sector,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. — Thomson Reuters Foundation