Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN)
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/26/asia/cambodia-brick-kiln/index.html