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Cambodia: Fast fashion fuels kilns where workers faint from heat.


Chantrea brings a large door-sized electric fan into her airless workspace every day.

The brick kiln, resembling a dimly lit tomb, provides her sole relief from the scorching heat.

"It feels akin to toiling within a blazing penitentiary," remarks the 47-year-old individual as she arranges the desiccated bricks, which will subsequently be relocated to a storage facility. "I have requested the proprietors to furnish us with additional ventilators." However, they will refrain from doing so due to the higher financial expenditure it would entail.

The fan she possesses emits a gradual clunking sound upon initiation, eventually transitioning into a whirring motion. It produces a minimal airflow.

What is the maximum temperature at which it is considered unsafe to work? Researchers have discovered the answer to this question in Cambodia's brick kilns, where individuals work under extremely high temperatures, which are exacerbated by the remnants of fast fashion.

The BBC interviewed multiple workers who reported experiencing profuse perspiration throughout the day, likening it to being immersed in a hot bath. Episodes of syncope are also frequent, potentially due to dehydration. They have altered their names due to apprehension of retaliation from their employers.

Researchers have conducted a unique study to document the impact of prolonged exposure to extreme heat on the health of workers.

Advanced sensors monitored the core temperature of 30 labourers at the kilns for a week, revealing that all of them experienced heat stress, indicated by core temperatures exceeding 38C. These symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

The normal range for body temperature typically falls between 36.1C and 37.2C. A body temperature exceeding 38C indicates the presence of a fever. Several workers experienced core temperatures of 40C, a condition that can potentially cause heat stroke. Heat stroke can lead to convulsions, eventual loss of consciousness, and even death if not promptly treated.

According to one worker, he experienced cardiac failure as a result of the high temperatures. However, he ultimately resumed his employment as it was his sole means of livelihood.

This situation is exacerbated by the increasing temperature of the climate and Cambodia's local weather conditions. In fact, in May of last year, the temperature reached a new peak of 41.6 degrees Celsius, making it the hottest year on record. With the escalating global temperatures, even a marginal rise could have life-or-death consequences for the numerous brick kiln workers across Asia.

"A recurring narrative that I frequently encounter is the notion of collective responsibility in addressing climate change." However, that statement is completely false. "There is significant variation in the level of involvement among individuals," stated Laurie Parsons, the author of the study conducted at Royal Holloway University.

Apparel containing hazardous residues

The weather is humid this afternoon outside the kiln, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Indoors, where Chantrea is arranging bricks, the atmosphere is suffocating.

However, she is fully clothed from head to toe, with loose-fitting garments that drape over her small body - serving as her sole protection against the scorching heat and dust. Excessive heat causes her skin to develop blisters.

The kilns are contained within brick walls and tightly sealed. Workers remain outside and supply wood through a hatch in order to maintain a sufficiently high temperature, typically around 1500C, to solidify the clay bricks. Upon reaching that point, they cease adding fuel to the fire and, once the intensity of the heat becomes more tolerable, they proceed to enter the chamber.

Insufficient data exists regarding the mean temperature within the kilns due to researchers facing difficulties in obtaining access. Additionally, it is challenging to determine the precise number of workers who become ill or experience more severe consequences due to the high temperatures.

Chantrea states that injuries resulting from falling bricks are frequent. According to the workers' accounts, the researchers from the UK were informed that the bricks frequently cause burns, even when wearing protective gloves.

Kosal, a father of two, collects a combination of fabric, plastic, and rubber from outside the kiln and swiftly inserts it into the opening before closing it. As children, including the kiln workers' own children, run past, black smoke permeates through the cracks.

"I am accustomed to the presence of black smoke." "I no longer perceive it," he states. "I am required to maintain the combustion of these fires continuously for a duration of 24 hours." My spouse and I divided the tasks evenly between ourselves.

The children traverse piles of bags filled with clothing remnants - additional material to be used as fuel in Cambodia's $6 billion garment sector.

However, what may initially seem like a resolution to the undesirable remnants of the nation's 1,300 clothing manufacturing facilities is in fact concealing its own perilous undisclosed information.

As per a 2018 report titled "Blood Bricks" by UK scholars from Royal Holloway, these remnants contain detectable amounts of chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, and ammonia, along with heavy metals, PVC, and resins employed in the dyeing and printing procedures. The report additionally discovered that brick factory workers consistently reported experiencing migraines, nosebleeds, and other ailments.

Kosal's three-year-old daughter, with her hair covered in dust, happily jumps over a stack of clothing labelled with Disney logos. The majority of the pyjamas are made of flannel and feature embossed images of Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen. These products are designed for children residing in colder regions.

Many Western fashion brands enforce stringent codes of conduct to prevent such occurrences. A representative from Disney informed the BBC that the company is currently examining the accusation and explicitly stated that they do not support the reported conditions in this particular situation.

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

H&M acknowledged the ongoing challenge of traceability in Cambodia, but emphasised their implementation of internal waste management guidelines to prevent the utilisation of fabric waste as a fuel source by factories or its disposal in landfills.

Cambodia's brick kilns have faced longstanding allegations of hazardous and inequitable working conditions, employing individuals from some of the most impoverished regions globally. According to experts, climate change is currently worsening those existing inequalities.

"We must analyse the effects of climate change on individuals in terms of work and inequality, and acknowledge that labour exploitation significantly contributes to the most severe consequences of climate change," stated Mr. Parsons.

Thermal insulation

Regardless of the job's toxicity or difficulty, workers such as Chantrea and Kosal are unable to resign. These individuals, who have been affected by climate change, find themselves caught in an ongoing pattern of extreme heat.

Most individuals employed in Cambodia's brick kilns were previously engaged in agricultural activities. Chantrea previously cultivated rice. However, the limited precipitation in recent years has posed challenges in effectively overseeing a solitary crop yield.

"Following the failure of our crops, we acquired a substantial amount of debt." "However, as their attempts continued to be unsuccessful, we accumulated a substantial amount of debt," she states.

Ultimately, she was compelled to relocate to Phnom Penh with the aspiration of securing employment in order to settle her debts. The Cambodian Microfinance Association reports that over two million out of Cambodia's total adult population of 10 million have unpaid micro-loans. Each of them has an average debt of $3,320 (£1,955).

The presence of financial insecurity has provided a source of susceptible labour for brick kilns. The owners propose to fully repay the loan, however, as a condition, the worker becomes obligated to the kiln.

Frequently, entire families are attached to the kiln. Despite the Cambodian government's efforts to prevent child labour, the BBC observed children assisting their parents in the kiln.

"If we depart, we harbour apprehensions of being apprehended and incarcerated," Chantrea asserts. "Therefore, it is imperative that we exert great effort and face challenges in this particular situation." Should we be requested to venture into the flames, we shall comply without hesitation, solely to amass additional funds for sustenance and debt settlement.

However, the remuneration is insufficient to ever fully reimburse the debt. Chantrea receives a compensation of 10,000 Cambodian riel (£1.92; $2.45) for the task of arranging approximately 500 bricks.

She must allocate funds for the expenses of food, electricity, and water. She resides in a rudimentary tin structure located at the periphery of the kiln. Additionally, she provides for a young boy whom she encountered unaccompanied on the street and subsequently took in as her own. When experiencing hunger, they collectively search for snails through foraging.

"Over the course of several years, I have consistently failed to repay the owner," Chantrea admits. According to her, the debt has only escalated.

The kilns in Cambodia have supplied the capital city's rapid growth in construction. Researchers from Royal Holloway University have reported that foreign investors, including the UK, have invested one billion pounds.

However, as Phnom Penh continues to expand vertically, with numerous air-conditioned apartment towers, the city is neglecting the individuals who have contributed to its construction.

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