The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has issued a statement denying recent news reports that children under the age of 15 have been working at a brick kiln with their mothers in order to secure their family’s freedom from debt bondage incurred by their parents with its owner.

In a press statement on November 2, the ministry said it had dispatched a team to investigate following media reports that there was a case of debt bondage in Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district.

The team went down to the location in Krom village of the district’s Prek Anhchanh commune where child labour was allegedly taking place. They met with Huot Nayhuoy, the owner alleged to be employing child labour, and also spoke with Chhum Sim – the worker who was reportedly the debtor.

The ministry said the owner had learned the laws and regulations on the banning of employment by children under the age of 15 and is now in full compliance with them.

According to the ministry, Chhum Sim, who is the protagonist of the media report, said she did not borrow money from the owner or become a debtor to him as the media previously reported based on statements attributed to her.

The ministry said the media reported the story without having collected the full information from all sources and that this brought confusion to the public and damaged the dignity of the kiln owner without specifying what further information the initial reports should have included.

Reached by The Post on November 3, Chhum Sim denied that she had been in debt bondage at any point, saying she had been working at different kilns for 20 years. She also said that in the past she had borrowed money from a kiln owner in order to build her house.

“At the previous kiln I worked at, I borrowed 600,000 riel ($150) from the owner and another $7,000 to build a house and then when I went to work at a new kiln I borrowed $7,000 from the new owner in order to pay off the old debt. The previous owner did not charge any interest,” she said.

Regarding the media report that her underage children were working at the brick kiln, Chhum Sim said her children just replaced her sometimes when necessary but they were not actually employed by the brick kiln.

“One of my children is 12 years old and never works here. But the one aged 14 can replace me sometimes. He takes bricks and lays them in the sun to dry when I need to go to the market or cook meals. But it’s just for a short time,” she said.

Chhum Sim explained that there are seven people in her family but only three of them work full-time at the brick kiln – herself, her husband and their 16-year-old son.

“The three of us work together. If the brick-producing machine works smoothly, they can make up to 20,000 bricks to dry, earning 50,000 riel. But if the machine is not working smoothly we can maybe only manage to lay about 10,000 bricks earning 25,000 riel. The owner provides us with accommodations, but we have to pay for water and electricity,” she said.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho, said that according to their research there are children working at some brick kilns and it is definitely still happening despite the labour ministry having inspected these kilns many times already.

“Some brick kilns still employ child labour and debt-servitude continues to exist but in a new form. In the past, workers borrowed money directly from the kiln owners, but now they borrow it from a relative of the kiln owners,” he said, adding that it was like many common practices in the industry in that it amounted to a legal distinction but without a practical difference.

Sam Ath urged the ministry and relevant authorities to investigate these businesses more thoroughly and levy penalties against the owners who are using child labour.

The labour ministry urged members of the public or the media to contact the ministry through hotline 1297, by calling 023 884 374 or through the ministry’s Facebook page if they witness employment-related child abuse or have information related to abuses in the brick kiln industry and the production of so-called “Blood Bricks”.