The expansion of MFI to poorest also comes at a time when the impacts of an increasingly varied climate, combined with reduced state support, and rising agricultural costs, are making rural life untenable for many across Cambodia. Mealea and her parents took on a loan to invest in paddy cultivation, using their homestead land as collateral. The shift to more commercial rice production across Cambodia has meant higher costs for pesticides, fertilisers, and irrigation to ensure success for high-yielding seeds. However, floods and poor land topography meant that Mealea’s crop failed, and she and her family were unable to repay their loan. Mealea therefore approached a brick kiln owner, and asked him to repay her existing debts. In exchange, she moved to the kiln to work off her debt bond.
For Mealea, the kiln owner was a paternalistic figure who enabled her to escape rising MFI debts and keep hold of her homestead land. She says of her new work, ‘Everyone works normally without pressure’.
Life on Cambodia’s brick kilns is not easy. Kiln work is unsafe, workers are paid low, piece-rate wages, and adults and sometimes children undertake gruelling work for long hours with minimal protective equipment. Health issues reported include breathing difficulties, limb loss due to machinery, dizziness, and even unexplained deaths. Furthermore, kiln workers are often unable to leave kilns until debts are repaid, which can mean living on them for years and over generations.
Yet for many, highly-exploitative bondage is the only choice, due to spiralling MFI debts. The development sector therefore needs to look beyond exploitative employers to understand how debt bondage is forged. It also needs to reconsider the uncritical promotion of microfinance as a tool of poverty alleviation, across the Sustainable Development Goals and beyond. In its current commercial form, MFI risks being a drain on people’s finances, and even a driver of debt bondage.
Moving beyond ‘modern slavery’ then, we need to re-situate highly exploitative labour relations in a wider setting. One which understands how debt bondage is driven by systemic factors, not one-off instances of exploitative employers.
The researchers behind this study intend to submit a petition to the UN in order to expose abuses of both investors and officials who have profited from debt bondage. Their goal is to ensure that brick workers receive fair wages, good working conditions, and ideally compensation for past exploitation. Find out how you can help.
All images featured in this story were taken by Thomas Cristofoletti, Ruom collective, © Royal Holloway, University of London