Study exposes Cambodia’s brick ‘slaves’

Cambodia’s construction boom is being built with “blood bricks” from modern-day slaves, including children, according to an academic study.

Last year Cambodia’s imports of construction materials rose 36 per cent, while the authorities approved more than 3,000 construction projects: an increase of 22 per cent from 2016.

Researchers from London’s Royal Holloway University said Cambodia’s brick industry relied upon a multi-generational workforce of adults and children trapped in the most common contemporary form of slavery: debt bondage.

Many farmers, burdened by spiralling micro-finance debt and hunted by loan sharks, have turned as a last resort to brick factory owners, who buy up their debts and put them to work until they can pay back the money.

Poverty fuelled partly by climate change has pushed thousands of Cambodian families into bonded labour, making bricks for buildings in Phnom Penh. 

Although illegal under Cambodian law and international treaties Phnom Penh has signed, debt-bonded labour is increasingly common, the report says.

“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 study 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.”

The International Labour Organisation estimates that modern slavery traps 40 million people globally and urban development is propelled by unsustainable levels of debt taken out by farmers when crops fail.

Families included in the study agreed to pay back loans of between US$100 and US$4,000. The average amount was US$712, which is a considerable sum in a country where the average annual income is US$1,230, according to the World Bank.

Cambodia lacks social security and farmers, who make up half of the population, receive no support from the government.

“Our research aims to show that climate migration is happening in the here and now and that the impacts of climate change are social as well as natural,” said Katherine Brickell, one of the authors of the study.

“The research makes clear that the factors are complex but the poverty and inequality that leads many to the kiln is exacerbated by climate change.”


Child labour is common in Cambodia. Picture credit: Wikimedia