Fast Fashion Fuels Cambodia’s ‘burning prisons’

Chantrea brings in a massive electric fan to her stuffy workplace each day.

It is her sole escape from the scorching temperatures within the brick kiln, resembling a sombre chamber.

“It feels as though I’m trapped in an inferno,” the 47-year-old remarks while carefully piling the sun-dried bricks, destined to be transported to a storage facility. “I have requested the owners to supply us with additional supporters.” However, they are unlikely to do so due to the increased expenses involved.

The fan she does have slowly clunks as it starts, eventually whirring into action. It hardly stirs the air.

What is the maximum temperature at which it becomes unsafe to work? Researchers have discovered the answer to a pressing question in Cambodia’s brick kilns, where individuals work tirelessly in extremely hot conditions, fueled in part by the remnants of fast fashion.

The BBC interviewed multiple workers who described their experience of sweating profusely throughout the day, comparing it to being immersed in a hot bath. It’s not uncommon for people to faint, possibly due to dehydration. Their identities have been altered due to concerns about potential backlash from their employers.

Researchers have conducted a unique study to examine the impact of prolonged exposure to high temperatures on the health of workers.

Special sensors monitored the core temperature of 30 workers at these kilns for a week and revealed that all of them experienced heat stress, with core temperatures exceeding 38C. These symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

The normal range for body temperature is typically between 36.1C and 37.2C. A body temperature above 38C indicates the presence of a fever. Several workers experienced dangerously high core temperatures, which can have severe consequences if not addressed promptly. These include heat stroke, convulsions, loss of consciousness, and in extreme cases, even death.

Workers have reported that the new bricks frequently cause burns, even when wearing protective gloves

A worker shared with researchers that he had experienced heart failure as a result of the high temperatures. However, he ultimately decided to go back to work as it was his sole means of making a living.

The situation is exacerbated by the increasing temperatures and the extreme weather conditions in Cambodia. In fact, in May of last year, the country experienced a record-breaking temperature of 41.6C, adding to the already scorching year. With rising global temperatures, even a slight increase in temperature could have life-or-death consequences for the tens of thousands of brick kiln workers in Asia.

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“A recurring theme that I often come across is the idea that we are all united in facing the challenges of climate change.” However, that statement is completely false. “Some individuals are more engaged than others,” stated Laurie Parsons, the author of the study, from Royal Holloway University.

Toxic traces found in clothing
The weather is quite muggy this afternoon outside the kiln, located on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Inside, where Chantrea is stacking bricks, the air feels suffocating.

However, she is completely covered in clothes that drape over her small body, providing her with protection from the intense heat and dust. If the bricks become excessively heated, her skin will blister.

The kilns are surrounded by sturdy brick walls and tightly sealed. Workers diligently remain outside, ensuring a steady supply of wood to maintain the necessary high temperature, typically around 1500C, for the clay bricks to be properly set. Once that occurs, they cease adding to the intensity and when the temperature appears more tolerable, they proceed into the chamber.

Although they include harmful residues, bags filled to the brim with textile remnants provide a less expensive fuel source for the kilns

“I have become accustomed to the black smoke. “I no longer pay attention to it,” he says. “I need to maintain these fires for a full day.” My wife and I divide the work evenly.

The children playfully explore bags filled with clothing offcuts, which will be used as additional fuel for the kiln in Cambodia’s $6bn garment industry.

However, what may seem like a potential resolution to the surplus waste from the nation’s 1,300 clothing manufacturing facilities is actually concealing a dangerous truth.

As per a report released in 2018 by UK academics at Royal Holloway, it was found that these scraps contain various substances such as chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, ammonia, heavy metals, PVC, and resins used in dyeing and printing. The report also discovered that workers in brick factories frequently experienced migraines, nosebleeds, and other health issues.
Kosal’s three-year-old daughter, with her hair covered in dust, happily skips past a pile of clothing with Disney labels. Many of the pyjamas feature adorable images of Anna and Elsa from Frozen. These are designed for kids who live in colder regions.

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Most Western fashion labels have implemented strict codes of conduct to prevent such occurrences. A Disney spokesperson informed the BBC that the company is currently looking into the claim and expressed their disapproval of the alleged conditions in this situation.

The BBC also discovered labels from Clarks shoes and H&M, among other brands. Clarks has urged the Cambodian ministry of environment to conduct an investigation and has extended an invitation to other affected companies to collaborate with the relevant authorities in Cambodia to address this issue.

H&M recognised the ongoing challenge of traceability in Cambodia, but assured that they have implemented their own waste management guidelines to prevent fabric waste from being used as fuel or ending up in landfills.

Cambodia’s brick kilns have faced ongoing criticism for their hazardous and unjust working conditions, impacting some of the most impoverished individuals globally. According to experts, climate change is further worsening these inequalities.

“It is crucial to analyse the effects of climate change on individuals in terms of labour and inequality. We must acknowledge that labour exploitation plays a significant role in exacerbating the severe consequences of climate change,” stated Mr. Parsons.

The scorching dilemma

No matter how challenging or unpleasant the job may be, workers like Chantrea and Kosal are unable to quit. Trapped in a relentless cycle of heat, these individuals are the unfortunate victims of climate change.

Most of the individuals employed in Cambodia’s brick kilns previously worked as farmers. Chantrea used to cultivate rice. However, the lack of rainfall in recent years has posed challenges in effectively managing a single harvest.

“After our crops failed, we had to borrow a significant amount of money.” However, as their attempts continued to fall short, we found ourselves burdened with a significant amount of debt,” she explains.

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Eventually, she had no other option but to move to Phnom Penh, hoping to secure employment and repay her loans. According to the Cambodian Microfinance Association, over two million adults in Cambodia currently have outstanding micro-loans out of a total of 10 million adults. They each have an average debt of $3,320 (£1,955).

The current economic instability has provided the necessary workforce for brick kilns. The owners have proposed a solution where they would cover the loan, but in exchange, the worker would be bound to the kiln.

Many times, entire families find themselves connected to the kiln. Children were observed assisting their parents in the kiln, despite the Cambodian government’s attempts to curb child labour, as reported by the BBC.

The poorest villages in Cambodia have been disproportionately affected by the construction boom

“If we go, we’re scared of getting arrested and thrown in jail,” Chantrea says. “So we must persevere in this situation. We are willing to go to great lengths, even risking our safety, in order to increase our income and alleviate our financial burden.

However, the wages are insufficient to ever fully repay the debt. Chantrea receives a payment of 10,000 Cambodian riel (£1.92; $2.45) for successfully stacking approximately 500 bricks.

She has to cover the costs of food, electricity, and water. She lives in a humble tin shack on the outskirts of town, providing for a young boy she discovered abandoned on the streets and took under her wing. When they’re feeling peckish, they team up to search for snails.

“After several years, I still haven’t fulfilled my obligation to the owner,” Chantrea admits. The debt, she mentions, has only grown.

Cambodia’s kilns have played a crucial role in fueling the capital’s construction boom. Researchers from Royal Holloway University have reported that foreign investors, including the UK, have shown interest in this development, with an investment of one billion pounds.

However, as Phnom Penh continues to grow with the construction of numerous air-conditioned apartments, the city is unintentionally neglecting the very people who have contributed to its development.

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