Trapped in modern-day slavery: Meet Cambodia’s lost children

Family debt is dragging young children in Cambodia into dangerous and exhausting working environments that can leave them maimed and exhausted. But without their contribution, their family and their country’s economy, would be in poor health. 


Cambodia’s GDP growth rate has been a soaring 7% for the last five years. But behind these figures are the sweat and tears of huge numbers of cheap child employees—about 19% of Cambodian children were defined as working in 2012. Economic development is highly prized, education and child welfare improvement are clearly not.

The human rights organisation, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) recently released a report into child labour and debt bondage in 11 brick factories and the results are hard to read. According to the research, debt had pushed many parents into hard labour and their children had become involved in decreasing the family’s burden.

The amount owed varied from USD$1,000 to $6,000, with the average being between $2,000 and US$3,000. This might be because of medical bills, rice seed, animal stock or crop failure. And though the factory owners charged no interest and provided housing, a person’s debt is quickly increased thanks to illness or injury because of the poor working and living conditions.

Desperate measures

The report told the story of one ten-year-old girl called Ping who started working for the brick production site at the age of nine. Her parents owed about USD$3000 and her family, including her four siblings, could not survive if she stopped working.

As a loader she earned 1 KHR (USD$0.025 cents) per brick she carried onto the trucks and she could load one truck (about 15,000 bricks) in a morning before going to school in the afternoons. However, she would not attend school during busy times; instead working all day. After one-year’s hard labour, this little girl has been eaten up with constant back pain, chest pains and sleepless nights.

Due to the manufacturing way of Cambodian bricks, the factories that children like Ping work in have brick ovens that are usually heated to between 900°C to 1200°C, machinery with exposed moving parts, unstable brick piles and harmful dust. The workers, however, do not have any protection measures or safety equipment.

LICADHO found that as a result three children lost arms in brick factory machinery and one of them had died. Even the kids that did not work there, but just went there with the working parents, were exposed to a dangerous and hazardous environment.

A terrible price

Seng Pheakdey, a seven-year-old boy, lost his left arm in the brick factory. His mother was working and did not realise he was just playing behind her until she accidently bumped him and made him fall into a fast-moving conveyor belt. The arm fell at the feet of his distraught mother.

Workers also said that houses provided by the management are overcrowded and poorly maintained, as well as extremely close to the operational area of the factory. To avoid the hot sun, some children need to get up at 3 a.m., leaving them with abnormal muscle development thanks to many hours of hard manual labour.

And this problem is not new. The same rights organisation exposed the child labour problem at least nine years ago, but little action has been taken. They say this is because the influence of corruption is felt in almost every corner of the Cambodian judiciary, and staff even witnessed factory owners giving gifts to the local police and authorities. In this enabling environment, few practical steps can be taken even though Cambodia has outlawed child labour.

A lack of education

According to data from the United Nations Children’s Fund among nearly four million children aged 5–17 years (26.6% of the population in Cambodia), about 19% of them were defined as a working child in 2012. And child labourers made up 56.9% of all working children. More than a half (55.1%) of these child workers are engaged in hazardous labour (in designated hazardous industries or hazardous occupations) or in non-hazardous industries but working for more than 48 hours in the reference week.

Meanwhile, 11.2% of children living in urban areas and 23.6% of children living in rural areas were not attending school, and 5.2% of urban children and 11.3% of rural children had never attended school. “Cannot afford schooling” was the major reason for dropping education, followed by “Poor in studies/not interested.”


Source: International Labour Organization

You see, the brick workers are not alone. Horrible human rights situations have many faces for young children in Cambodia. UNICEF estimates that about one-third of sex workers are under 18 years of age. And more than half of those children forced into the sex industry are lured or sold into it by people they know. This figure becomes less of a surprise when it is understood that virgins can be sold for up to US$800; that is three times the country’s annual GDP per capita rate.

An arm. Several hundred dollars. Abnormally developed limbs. The price of a lost childhood is low in Cambodia. More must be done to help.