The Labor Ministry says that it is investigating fresh allegations of widespread child labor at the country’s brick-making factories, but claims to have found no evidence as of yet.
The ministry made the announcement on Friday, hours after the release of a new report by local rights group Licadho exposing the widespread and systemic use of child labor and debt bondage by brick factory owners. Both practices are illegal under Cambodian law and subject to stiff prison sentences in the case of debt bondage.
“The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is very troubled by the information in the Licadho report,” it said in a statement, before going on to praise its efforts to combat child labor to date.
“The ministry has taken urgent action to investigate these cases,” it said. “Meanwhile, the ministry would like to clarify that in the past and presently the ministry’s inspection team and national anti-child labor committee…have told enterprises and other establishments to stop and prevent child labor and have seriously fined those that have used child labor.”
On Sunday, ministry spokesman Heng Sour told reporters via text message that all provincial labor departments have also been ordered to step up inspections of the brick factories in their jurisdiction.
He said they had yet to find any violations, however.
“The ministry has also created a special working group to investigate cases in each brick factory along National Road 6A [and] National Road 1 around Phnom Penh,” he said. “So far the ministry has not found any case raised by Licadho.”
The spokesman said the ministry would “seriously punish” factories found to be putting children under the age of 15 to work.
However, neither the statement nor the spokesman said anything about punishing factories for employing children under 18, which is also illegal in cases of hazardous work (Licadho says brick factories qualify, having found some cases and several reports of severe injury to adults and children alike).
The ministry also failed to mention debt bondage, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Licadho found rampant child labor and debt bondage at the 11 brick-making sites—with one to 39 factories each—that its researchers visited around Phnom Penh from June to August. Reporters for The Cambodia Daily also had no trouble finding evidence of both last week.
In response to the Labor Ministry’s statement, Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, said a thorough and serious response to the problem would require the involvement of other ministries as well.
“The local police and authorities have always known what’s going on in these factories, but they take no action against the factory owners,” she said on Sunday.
“That’s why a response from the Ministry of Labor isn’t enough. It’s the Ministries of Interior and Justice which have the responsibilities to investigate and to prosecute factory owners and others involved in debt bondage of families and children.”
Am Sam Ath, the group’s monitoring manager, said it would be a costly mistake for the government to inspect factories for children under 15 only and to ignore the debt bondage.
Licadho found that almost all factory owners made hefty loans to their workers with the promise of their cheap labor until the loans were paid off. With families paid by the brick—in one case about $7.50 per 100,000 bricks—they are pressured to keep their children out of school to help.
“Debt bondage is the reason for the child labor,” Mr. Sam Ath said. “They should solve the root cause first before they can solve the child labor.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)