mok kampoul district, Kandal province – All was quiet at the Ta Pan Brick Factory yesterday morning; a few laborers pulled a cart loaded with bricks, while others sat around idly smoking cigarettes.
A little over a year ago, the brick-making factories clustered here along National Road 6 were in a flurry of activity, and whole families could be seen toiling on heaps of the red mud that the wood-fired kilns formed into bricks.
Now, with the slowdown of the capital’s property market and the consequent halting of many of the city’s real estate development projects, the brick-making sector is suffering badly, with many factories closing and much of its unskilled work force having been laid off.
“Right now I want to close my factory, but then all the workers will lose their jobs,” said Chhun Thou, the 60-year-old owner of Ta Pan Brick, located about 15 km northeast of Phnom Penh.
Mrs Thou said the brick market began to slow down around the time of the July 2008 election and then got progressively worse as the economic crisis started to take effect in Cambodia late last year.
“Before the election, we used to produce 200,000 bricks [per month], now we produce 50,000,” she said, adding that brick prices had fallen equally fast. When demand for bricks peaked in 2007 and early 2008, 10,000 bricks would sell for around $500, Mrs Thou said, adding that these days the same volume fetches a mere $200.
Mok Kampoul district has the largest concentration of brick producers around Phnom Penh and each factory employs a few dozen families who work and live on site. Child rights groups say the brick sector is known for exploiting child labor, with children often working in extremely hazardous conditions, such as unbearable heat, flying ashes, falling bricks and dangerous machinery.
Leang Meng, the owner of Hok Va Brick Factory, said she had been forced to reduce brick production from 800,000 bricks per month in early 2008 to 300,000 per month at present, while also reducing the number of families that live and work on the 2-hectare premises from 20 to 10.
“I started my factory in 1997; the sector has never been affected this seriously,” Mrs Meng said, adding some factories in the area were now closing down completely.
With a building boom seizing the capital three years ago, the number of brick factories in the area jumped from about 30 producers to 60.
Preap Koy, president of the brick factories association in Mok Kampoul, said that about 20 to 30 percent of these factories had closed down since last year and more are on the brink of failing. He added that brick makers are having difficulty securing loans and interest on loans has risen.
“The factories that are still open hardly continue to run because they cut workers and production,” Mr Koy said, noting that any recovery depended directly on the construction industry.
“It affects many people, but especially the workers,” said Mrs Meng, the Hok Va Brick owner.
Families of laid-off workers with land have already gone back to their villages, while many others have left for the areas near the Thai border to work as laborers harvesting cassava and corn.
“One month ago I planned to shut down, but then I reconsidered,” she said.
Mrs Meng said that she has now lowered the pay for her remaining workers from 8 riel per brick to 6 riel. “Previously, I encouraged them to work hard; now I let them work at their own pace and allow them to go fish for food if they want.”
Roeung Saroen, a 29-year-old foreman at the Punleu Chanras Brick Factory, said production at his factory had plummeted by 75 percent during the last year. “If this continues the company will close soon,” Mr Saroeun said.
Around 60 families used to live at the factory, but now only 10 families remain, he said.
“The people leave themselves. They get paid per brick, so when there are fewer orders they have no work to do,” Mr Saroeun said.
Worker Sien Sam and his six-member family live at Hok Va Brick. The 39-year-old said he frets over what may become of his family if the factory shuts down because he sold his land in Svay Rieng province when he moved to the brick plant 10 years ago.
“When the factory shut down I don’t know what I can do. I have no plan, I have no land,” he said, adding that his family’s income had already fallen from $52 to $40 per week.
Mao Thora, secretary of state of the Ministry of Commerce, said he knew the brick industry was suffering, but added his ministry did not know the scale of the problems, as it had conducted no survey in the sector.
Kandal Provincial Governor Chhun Sirun downplayed the issue, claiming that laid-off workers could easily take up farming in their native communities.
“Everyone in Cambodia has their own land,” he said by telephone. “After they lose their job they can go back.”
Veng Heang, director of the child labor department at the Ministry of Labor, said his department had a special program to help children who work in the brick sector to attend school, but added: “It will be more difficult to control the situation [of working children] when they leave with their family to a new place.”
MP Joseph, the head the International Labor Organization’s Elimination of Child Labor Program in Cambodia, said “the crisis may be an opportunity to ensure that children previously working in the brick industry and now out of work are enrolled into schools and supported to stay in there.”