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Workers are being trapped as 'modern day slaves' amidst Cambodia's economic boom

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Cambodia’s GDP went up by seven percent in the last six years, giving them one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.

In major cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the recent economic boom has been a blessing for some and a curse for others.

With the thriving economy comes a growing need for construction. Brick kilns are one of the country's biggest economic sectors.

But there is a hidden price these cities are paying for their rapid growth. It all starts here in the factories - largely outside the capital of Phnom Penh, where life looks very different.

One brick kiln worker told CNN, "I hope that the brick kiln owner will close this kiln when they run out of the clay, so I can get rid of the debt and stop working here."

Factory work is seasonal which means families can’t rely on the meager income for most of the year.

Even when they do find work, most workers have to return everything they earn to the kiln owners.

Workers borrow money for medical expenses, for funerals, to support their children or sometimes to pay off higher interest loans.

In order to pay down this debt, they come to work in the brick kilns.

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Debt bondage is a form of modern day slavery and it’s illegal under Cambodian law. But that doesn’t stop factory owners from exploiting their employees for profit.

The Cambodian labor ministry disputes those findings. They say the kilns are closely inspected and they haven't found any cases of debt bondage.

CNN spoke to a brick kiln owner who said she gave her workers advanced loans that they were now paying off with labor.

"All of my workers owe me money. Not some of them, but all of them. Their lives here are good because the bills are put on me. When they give birth, we pay; when they get married, we also pay. So their debts increase because they borrow our money."
Brick kiln owner, Chan Nary

She told CNN she pays her workers three Cambodian riels per brick, which is a fraction of a fraction of a cent.

At other kilns, laborers say it's impossible to pay off what they owe with the wages they earn.

"We have to work here for our whole lives because we borrowed money from the kiln owner and we have nothing to reduce the debt."
Brick kiln worker, Hourn Pong

Many workers live in fear that they’ll be trapped in debt forever, even passing it on to their children.

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"All my children started working since they were very small like this one," one said. "They all have to work. This little one helps to carry the bricks."


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