Day 3: The most ruthless master of all
By Caroline Riseboro – VP, Marketing and Communications
We’re driving north in Cambodia, toward the border with Thailand. It’s like driving toward a magnet – or a black hole. For Cambodian families living this close to the border, the temptation to cross and look for work in Thailand is a powerful one.
Adults know the risks that come with crossing the border. And they try to teach their children. Human traffickers stalk vulnerable people both during the crossing, and on the other side. They prey on people’s hope for a better future.
Yet after what I saw today, I can fully understand why people try their luck. It’s not stupidity or, in the case of mothers sending their children, a hardness of heart. It’s because many children are already forced to serve the cruelest master of all. That’s poverty.
Life in an oven
The picture I saw today was one that seemed utterly hopeless. We visited a brick factory about 50 km south of the Thai border. There, I saw two generations of Cambodians working side by side. From behind the cloths over their face that they used to filter out the choking dust particles, I could see that the children’s eyes were still bright. Their parents’ eyes were resigned to a life that most Canadians would equate with a living hell.
The midday sun beat down and fired back off the buildings all around us. Despite the humidity of the environment, everything felt baked dry.
The brick factory day begins at six a.m. for children, four a.m. for adults. It often doesn’t end until well into the evening. Seven days a week. Week in, week out. Day in, day out. And no matter how many people in a family work, or hard anyone works, or how many bricks they produce, they still make enough to just barely stay alive.
The loudest voice in the factory’s main work area was one of an eerie grinding so loud I had to cover my ears. I had heard of this machine. Just last week, our World Vision colleagues told us, it had chewed a girl’s arm off.
I walked toward the machine, used for shaping clay into bricks. Feeding the machine lumps of clay with her bare hands was a girl of 16, Vanna Chhua. Although factory workers in the area have now agreed to restrict this machine work to children over 12, Vanna has been doing this since she was 11.
I watched her slender hands so close to those grinding jaws, and had to turn away. I was careful not to startle her. God forbid she should make an error in timing.
Feeding the machine is just part of Vanna’s job. She also has to cut huge lumps of clay-rich soil from the small quarry outside. She hauls them up onto her shoulder, and carry them in. Once the bricks are shaped, Vanna pushes them to the oven in a huge cart. I looked at the heft of the wheels and shuddered to see that Vanna’s feet were bare.
Vanna stopped to rest, and we talked for a while. Her smile was bright and beautiful, especially when sharing her dream of working in a beauty parlour. We took her picture, and asked permission to use it on the Internet and perhaps even television. She was overjoyed at the idea of being “famous”, and beamed across at her mother standing nearby. Suddenly, she was just another teenage girl.
A few minutes later, I said goodbye, and Vanna turned back to the machine.
Considering the child at the source
As we checked into our hotel tonight, I stopped abruptly in the doorway, noticing that the building was made of brick. I felt a wave of nausea. Had a teenage girl with a laughing smile risked her arm to make these bricks? When the rice came at dinner, I thought about the children we’d seen working in paddies at the side of the road. Who stood bent over in the blazing sun to make sure my plate was full?
These are all questions I’ll keep asking when I return to Canada next week. And they’re questions we’re asking Canadians to consider as they partner with World Vision and children like Vanna. We can’t end child slavery if we have no idea how we’re perpetuating the problem.
Caroline Riseboro, VP Public Affairs, World Vision Canada
Join the discussion on this blog and discover other ways to end child slavery on the Voices for Children Facebook Group page.