muk kampul district, Kandal province – The day teenager Muth Toma had his arm crushed and amputated, he was working to help his family.
It was Sept 2 and his mother had given birth to a baby boy five days earlier. His father was too sick to make bricks that day at the Ponleu Pich brick factory in Kandal’s Bak Kheng commune, where the family has lived and worked for three years.
Factory owner Tith Long had officially prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from working near the machines that convert piles of clay into somewhat uniformly shaped bricks.
But parents often use their children to help make bricks, so the work fell to Muth Toma and his 12-year-old brother Muth Borey.
Muth Toma, who his mother says is 17 while school records put him at 14 and hospital records at 15, put clay into the machine while his younger brother carried the newly formed bricks to a cart.
Around noon, Muth Toma was walking towards the brick-making machine when he slipped and fell forward onto its exposed gears and belts. His right arm was crushed to just below the shoulder. It was amputated later that day at Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh.
“It was lucky for me that the other workers could stop the machine in time, otherwise my life would have been destroyed by that brick machine,” Muth Toma said as he lay in his hospital bed last week.
With many poor families living and working at factories and construction sites around the country, it’s not unusual to see parents and their children working side by side. But recent injuries to children working at Muk Kampul district brick factories have caused alarm, and prompted calls for factory owners and parents to be more vigilant.
From March to July, 11 workers, including five teenagers under the age of 18, were injured at some of the 56 or so brick factories operating in the district, according to an assessment report by local rights group Licadho. The tally did not include Muth Toma’s accident.
Thay Kimsan, Licadho’s child rights coordinator, said factory owners should be held responsible because they are not ensuring that their work areas are safe or inaccessible to children. They should dissuade parents from using their children to work, he said.
“The businessmen are careless about providing safety at their compounds,” he said. “Almost none of the factories have constructed barriers around the machines, which is what causes workers to lose limbs.”
Owners should also be responsible for paying compensation to the injured, he added.
On Monday, factory owners defended their business practices. “We always tell them not to ask their children to work,” said Chea Chamnab, general manager of the nearby Heng Chhay Tith brick factory. “We tell the workers that if they love their children, they should keep them away from the machines.”
But several teenagers working at the factory said they often help their parents make bricks, both by transporting them and by using the machines. “Our parents ask us to help. I like helping my parents make money,” said Srey Nop, 13.
“Everyone is scared about accidents,” said Muth Toma’s mother, Touch Sophal. “But we need the children to help because we need money.”
Factory workers said that for every brick they make, they are paid about six riel, and between one and two riel for each brick transported to the kilns. The more people helping, the faster the work is completed and the more money is earned, which is why children are enlisted to help.
After Muth Toma’s accident, the responsibility for helping the family make bricks and earn money fell to his younger brother.
The 12-year-old said the factory owner gets very angry when he finds children around the machines, but that hasn’t stopped him from working.
“When I see the factory owner, I stop,” Muth Borey admitted. “But it’s very important to work now because my family needs money. I have no choice.”
Touch Sophal added that while the factory owner had paid $210 in medical bills for her son, she wasn’t expecting any more, as she was ultimately responsible for the accident. “The factory owner only hires parents, but I asked my son to help,” she said.
Sok San, Labor Ministry secretary of state, said factory owners are responsible for accidents, but it is often difficult to stop the practice of children working alongside their parents. “If [the owners] are forcing the children to work, it is easy to catch them,” Sok San said. “But if [children] are cooperating with the parents, it is very difficult.”
Many injuries are also not reported because parents are afraid of being held responsible for putting their children to work, Sok San said.
Haidy Ear-Dupuy, advocacy and communications manager for the NGO World Vision, said part of the problem is that poor families are struggling to make ends meet. In addition, Cambodians are traditionally reluctant to question the decisions of parents regarding their children.
“The parents are the ultimate authority,” she said. “Once you have children, they are expected to contribute to the family’s economic well-being.”