A child working at a brick kiln outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia CNN  — 

For these Cambodian workers, every brick they make is a step towards freedom from a lifetime of debt. Some NGO’s call this kind of “debt bondage” a modern form of slavery.

They’re learning at a first grade level. Neat rows of students read the local language, Khmer, out loud. The 16-year-old off to the side stands out. He’s the only one in the uniformed group wearing long sleeves in the sweltering heat.

Phea Chantheng says he’s afraid of the sight of his own hand. He doesn’t even like to think about how the accident happened. At the Marist School for children with disabilities, outside Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, the teachers have seen this kind of injury before.

Usually the arms are amputated below the shoulder, sometimes below the elbow.

“It’s an obscene accident. It happens more than once on the same machines in some places,” says Brother Terry Heinrich, one of the founders of the religious school. He counts about 20 students who have come through his classroom in about as many years with the tell-tale sign of “the accident.”

“They are pushing clay into a crusher, their hands are caught, dragged into the machine. Arms are crushed. They have to stand there while the machine is dismantled to get them out,” says Heinrich.

Chantheng kept his arm but he was left with a mangled hand. He was working in a brick factory when his feet slipped out from under him and his hand got caught.

It happened two years ago, and 25 miles from the school a catholic mission helped get him into. The memory stings.

He was 14 at the time at the time of the accident; his mother says that since the age of 11 he had been pitching in at the brick factory where his mother worked, loading bricks onto a cart and hauling them off to dry.

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Shackled by Debt
02:12 - Source: CNN

Spiraling debt

Chantheng’s injury earned him a new beginning, in the classroom. The rest of his family has stayed behind.

His siblings live with his mother Mok Thy. After the accident, she wouldn’t let them help out at the factory anymore, but when they’re old enough Mok Thy imagines they’ll have to start again.

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Child labor in Cambodia's brick kilns
03:36 - Source: CNN

When she can’t work anymore, she says they’ll be responsible for paying off the debt she owes to the owner of the factory where she works.

She says that 15 years ago she took a $12 loan from a brick factory owner that has ballooned to $2,800-worth of debt.

Over the years, she moved between different brick-making factories. Each time, she says, the new owner bought the debt she owed the previous owner. And then she’d owe a little bit more.

More from the CNN Freedom Project

Like other brick kiln workers, she’s paid by the brick. She says that much of her meager wages must go toward paying off the debt; there’s barely any money to survive on. When there’s not enough for necessities, she has to borrow more.

“This is the life of a brick kiln worker,” she says.

To make more bricks, and earn more money, Mok Thy says it’s typical for parents working at brick kilns to put their children to work alongside them.

At brick factories outside of Phnom Penh, CNN saw children involved in the brick-making process.

‘A sense of hopelessness’

In 2016, A Cambodian NGO called LICADHO sent researchers to dozens of brick kilns outside of Phnom Penh after being contacted by a group of families whose children were injured in accidents similar to Chantheng’s.

“Often there’s a sense of guilt [for the families and the children], there’s a sense of hopelessness, there’s depression, there’s bullying by other kids and parents and other people who don’t understand – and there’s lifetime pain depending on where the injury is,” says Naly Pilorge, the deputy director of advocacy for LICADHO.

In December 2016, LICADHO published a report determining that the risk of injuries to children in the kilns remains high. The same report alleges widespread abuses including child labor and bonded labor in the brick factories that are doing big business, fueling Cambodia’s building boom. The US State Department considers bonded labor to be a form of modern slavery.

Cambodia’s Labor Ministry refutes the findings of the LICADHO report. Child labor and bonded labor are illegal under Cambodian law.

The law isn’t being enforced, according to Pilorge. “[entire families] are just working. Working nonstop. Whatever money they get barely covers their food. It doesn’t make any difference towards reduction of their debt.

“What we found is not only that children were working besides dangerous machinery but we were also finding out that entire families were coerced or forced or tricked into bonded labor.”

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Working off debt in Cambodia's brick kilns
02:45 - Source: CNN

CNN visited brick kilns where workers said their debt to factory owners ranged from hundreds to thousands of US dollars. The going rate per brick is a fraction of a cent according to LICADHO. The equation makes it impossible for workers to pay down debt while earning enough for basics.

But the Labor Ministry insists the illegal practice of debt bondage isn’t flourishing in the kilns as LICADHO claims; in fact, the Ministry says the practice doesn’t exist at all.

“Debt bondage is the direct debt between employer and workers. This is debt borrowing,” insists Veng Heang, director of the Labor Ministry’s Child Labor Department.

Veng calls it a legal system of advance loans, but he says the distinction from debt bondage is “confusing” and for that reason, the practice should stop. One brick kiln owner we spoke to on the outskirts on Phnom Penh told us all her workers owe her money, because she gives them advance loans for things like weddings and to cover the expense of births.

“Their lives here are good because the bills are put on me,” she says. “When they give birth, we pay; when they get married, we also pay. So their debts increase because they borrow our money.”

Veng also says a successful government campaign against child labor has wiped out the problem in the kilns entirely. The success, he says, started with a campaign to get children out of the kilns launched back in 2006.

Six hundred government employees are assigned to inspect nearly 400 brick kilns. The Labor Ministry says they haven’t identified a single case that qualifies as child labor since 2012.

Children in the kilns

During the week that a CNN crew spent filming at brick factories outside of Phnom Penh, we saw children involved with various steps of the brick-making process, in every factory we visited. We can’t verify the ages of some of the children, or if the type of work they were doing would be considered illegal.

All the children we met said they were helping out their families without being paid.

A child working at a brick kiln outside Phnom Penh.

The Labor Ministry responded by saying that workers may be older than they look and that while labor is illegal for children under 15, light work is allowed for children aged 12 and over.

That’s not the kind of work Chantheng was doing two years ago. His mother no longer works on the machine that scarred her son. She’s moved on to another kiln where she spends her days hauling carts weighed down with bricks.