Cambodia’s high-rises, slavery and climate change

A legion of Cambodians are trapped as debt slaves in the brick-making industry as skylines and climate change expand.

Cambodia brick makers
Brick-firing takes about 10 days and workers are forced to labour into the night [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway, University of London]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Chanmony has spent the last 17 years making bricks used to build luxury condos and office spaces mushrooming across this Southeast Asian nation’s rising cities.

Although Cambodia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, the 42-year-old mother of four has never enjoyed the bounties of the construction boom that has transformed the skyline of the capital, Phnom Penh, where she works at a brick kiln. 

But Chanmony – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – is not one to complain and says she has “no ability to envy” the elites buying the property built on her exploitation. 

“We only have to be patient and keep working and earn money and it is our fate to keep suffering like that, she says.

This woman is among the legion of workers trapped by the domestic brick-making industry, supplying building materials needed to quench the country’s thirst for bricks. 

Although recent figures suggest a slight slowing down of the sector’s growth rate, the ever-present construction clamour echoing across the city coupled with unyielding demand for building materials tell a different story.

A truck full of wood is unloaded at a brick kiln on the periphery of Phnom Penh [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]
A truck full of wood is unloaded at a brick kiln on the periphery of Phnom Penh [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]

In 2017 alone, Cambodia’s imports of construction materials rose 36 percent, while the authorities approved more than 3,000 construction projects, marking an increase of 22 percent compared with the year prior.

Chanmony does not know when she’ll be able to return to her hometown province of Kampong Cham, where she built a wooden house for her family. At the moment, “it’s empty”, she says as she rests on a daybed in front of a corrugated hut, where she lives with her five-person family. Like other kiln workers, she, too, resides on site.

Paying off debt

It is 11am and the woman has just exited a sweltering warehouse lined with infinite rows of brick stacks spread across its vast grounds. Only minutes ago, she was lifting chocolate-coloured blocks off of a noisy conveyor belt and loading them onto a cart manned by her 10-year-old daughter, whose striking biceps are a testament to the strenuous physical work.

“I get the brick on the cart and then my husband and my daughter will get the cart and then get the brick under the sun [to dry],” she says.

“In total the three of us … we can make up to 25,000 to 30,000 bricks a day. It’s not only getting the brick from the kiln. The process requires three people to complete.”

Together, they earn from $250 to $300 a month with one-third of the income designated to pay back a $1,250 loan Chanmony took out with a microfinance company. She also owes $7,000 to another creditor – the factory owner – who will not let her or her family walk free until she repays it. 

“I don’t know how long [it will take] because I haven’t paid anything yet,” says Chanmony, who has spent almost half of her life working in kilns.

Kiln Nakry stacks fired bricks outside the kiln to dry before they are sold to construction sites [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]
Kiln Nakry stacks fired bricks outside the kiln to dry before they are sold to construction sites [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]

This scenario is not unique to Chanmony’s household. According to a study published on Tuesday by researchers from UK’s Royal Holloway University, Cambodia’s brick- making industry relies upon a multi-generational workforce of adults and children trapped in the most prevalent form of modern-day slavery, namely, debt bondage.

Although illegal under domestic law and the international treaties Cambodia is a signatory to, tens of thousands of debt-bonded families, the report says, “extract, mould, and fire clay in hazardous conditions”. 

Climate change and slavery

Aside from shining a light on the working conditions, the research examines the plethora of factors pushing the most vulnerable Cambodians into modern slavery, which the International Labour Organization estimates has trapped 40 million people worldwide. It illustrates how urban development is propelled by unsustainable levels of debt taken out by farmers to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change when their crop fails.

Desperate to support their families financially and left with no other option – Cambodia lacks a social security system and farmers, which make up half of the population, receive no support from the government – many are forced to migrate to brick factories hoping to make ends meet.

“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,” Katherine Brickell, one of the authors of the study, told Al Jazeera.

“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.”


Just like the kiln workers interviewed for the report, Chanmony, too, was forced to abandon her home in order to survive. A farmer from Kampong Cham province, she travelled to the suburbs of Phnom Penh lured by promises of gainful employment at a brick factory, because her rice field could not sustain her family.

“I can only do the rice planting once a year because the rice field that we own is quite small and it cannot support the whole family,” she says.

But when she arrived at her new workplace she quickly learned her wages were insufficient to cover daily expenses and became caught up in a spiral of debt.

“Working at the factory, I didn’t have enough money to support my family, so I got a loan from the old factory owner … but then it’s still not enough so I had to borrow more money from the microfinance for the family again,” she says. 

In the end, Chanmony took out multiple loans from microfinancing institutions in order to repay a fraction of her debts. 

‘Treated like animals’

Although the welfare of kiln workers, whose exploitation remains largely invisible to most, does not lie within the remit of Sou Chhloung’s job, he has turned his attention to their plight.

“Brick factory workers … most of the time are treated like animals. They are sold from one factory to another factory. Their debt keeps increasing and [they] are subjected to harassment and violence,” the deputy president of building and woodworkers trade union of Cambodia told Al Jazeera.

Since 2017, Chhloung has helped five debt-bonded families, including Chanmony‘s, to leave abusive employers and move to another factory. But the price workers pay for more humane working conditions is high, he says.

“According to my experience, in order to get them out of one factory to a new one, they have to pay between $3,000 to $6,000,” he said. Although she remains trapped in debt-bondage, Chanmony says, she is glad her family is no longer mistreated. “This new owner is quite kind compared to the previous one.”

Her fleeting victory gave Chanmony hope she might one day return to her village.

“If I can pay off the debt then I want to go home and have a small business,” she says. “I really regret [working in the kiln]. I feel the that the more I work, the more I have to pay for the debt I owe.”

Construction takes place on the $150m commercial and residential project The Elysee on Koh Pich [Diamond island] constructed using 'blood bricks' [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]
Construction takes place on the $150m commercial and residential project The Elysee on Koh Pich [Diamond island] constructed using ‘blood bricks’ [Thomas Cristofoletti/Royal Holloway]
Source: Al Jazeera