Broadening the horizons of ‘work’: small farms and brick kilns in Cambodia

Marx’s depiction of the ‘agrarian transition’ in England – the process whereby feudal peasants were transformed into capitalist wage workers through the privatisation of landed estates – has not played out in a similar fashion across the globe. Our conception of work has not caught up with the messy realities of uneven development that have resulted across much of the Global South.

Instead, our conception of work remains rooted in an understanding of linear transition – waged workers in factory settings, rather than the more complex and messy reality of spatially-disaggregated, non-waged work. The proposition that agriculture would generate a surplus to drive industry has not been evident. Instead, global circuits of capital have fuelled industrial and service sector growth, whilst leaving agriculture behind. The ‘agrarian transition’ is thus incomplete or even bypassed, as Henry Bernstein has written.

However, this picture is highly uneven across space and time. As a result, post-colonial states have seen the emergence of an economic model where low-paid work, or no work at all, is the norm in industry and services, and where agriculture is in decline. Small farmers across the Global South are therefore choosing to stay put in rural areas despite increasingly low returns from farming, and many commute hundreds of miles for poorly-paid waged work in industrial and services sectors; either seasonally, or for years on end.

How, then, do people reproduce themselves in countries where agriculture, industry and services fail to offer opportunity for decent remuneration? And what are the prospects for a progressive agenda vis-à-vis work in such a context?

The case of Cambodian smallholder farmers-turned-brick workers offers an illustrative, albeit severe, example of the kinds of work that people resort to, and the complexity of what is constituted by ‘work’ in the Global South.

Research undertaken as part of the Blood Bricks project has highlighted the dangerous and difficult working conditions experienced by brick workers in kilns located in Cambodia’s ascending capital city, Phnom Penh. Brick workers are forced to undertake manually gruelling work, excavating and cleaning clay soil, pushing it into dangerous mechanical brick-moulding machines, transporting it to large stacks to dry, and then moving moulded bricks into open kilns where they oversee unyielding kiln fires for days at a time. Brick workers use minimal or no protective equipment, and adverse health impacts are rife, with workers reporting headaches, fainting, respiratory conditions, organ failure, and even death.

Almost all brick workers were in bonded labour with debt bonds that are often 2-3 times higher than Gross National Income per Capita. Whole families were found to have moved from rural areas of Cambodia to live and work on brick kilns just outside Phnom Penh, to pay off their debts over years and even decades.

What drives workers to kilns? And what does it tell us about the changing nature of work in the country more broadly?

One of the key findings from the research has been the lengths that brick workers will go to in order to retain links to their rural homesteads. Despite Marx’s prediction of capitalist encroachment generating a mass dispossessed peasantry, destined for urban life and work, the reality is that smallholder farmers go to incredible lengths across hundreds of miles to retain rural land, but work in urban areas.

Becoming debt-bonded on the kiln is therefore often perceived as the lesser of two evils – a way to retain land, whilst having to become debt-bonded in order to do so. Yet how did brick workers generate debt in the first place?

Research reveals that debt-bonded brick workers begin their lives as smallholder farmers across the Mekong basin. The profound changes that Cambodia has undergone over the past five decades following the end of the Khmer Rouge era have propelled marketisation in rural areas. Smallholder farmers therefore face increasing restrictions on land use for cultivation, and rising prices for agricultural production, particularly in purchasing water, chemical inputs for farming, and labour. State support for agriculture has been notably scant in Cambodia, and farming is largely small-scale – 91% of farmers in the country own plots of land under three acres. Many smallholder farmers take out loans from the country’s burgeoning microfinance sector to pay for this. However the impacts of climate change along the Mekong basin have rendered agriculture increasingly erratic. One failed harvest can lead farmers into unsustainable levels of debt, and with unregulated interest rates on microfinance loans, the results can be catastrophic. Another driver for indebtedness was poor health, which could sink a rural household into unsustainable debt, and into the brick kilns.

Indebted smallholder farmers approach brick kiln owners to ‘buy off’ their local debts for a single, interest-free debt-bond. The whole farming family then moves to the kiln site to work this debt off. Research therefore reveals that debt-bondage is driven by rural distress, and exacerbated by climate change. Specifically, it is a lack of state support for agriculture and poor public health coverage, along with a pernicious and unregulated microfinance industry, that forces smallholder farmers onto kilns. Climate change acts as a catalyst.

Once they are on the kilns, smallholder farmers-turned-brick workers are forced to contend with dangerous working conditions and appallingly low piece-rate wages, with debt repayment taken out of this daily remuneration. The catalysing impacts of climate change continue to plague workers on kilns, as periods of rainfall which are increasingly erratic mean that work on the kiln stops, and kiln owners prevent workers from finding work elsewhere. Debt-bonded families are therefore forced to borrow increased amounts from kiln owners, and deepen their debts in these periods.

Crucially, whether in the farm or on the brick kiln, smallholder farmers are engaged in labour, in the Marxian sense of reproducing themselves through the sale of their labour power and generating surplus for capital. This even extends to debt-bonded workers on kilns. Despite the supposition put forward by some thinkers that Marx’s theorisation of debt-bonded or ‘unfree’ labour is incompatible with a capitalist system of production, Jairus Banaji urges us instead ‘to think of capitalism working through a multiplicity of forms of exploitation based on wage-labour’. Therefore, debt-bonded brick workers and smallholder farmers are both workers, struggling to reproduce themselves across a rural-urban geography, and forced to contend with precarious work in order to do so. They are among Bernstein’s ‘classes of labour’, and Tanya Murray Li’s ‘surplus populations’, labourers that are forced to contend with a fragmented and insecure working climate, and whose labour power is largely surplus to the requirements of capital at a global and even national scale.

The implications of this analysis for a progressive labour agenda are twofold. Firstly, in thinking about futures of work – and, indeed, already existing realities of work across countries like Cambodia – insecure, informal, and precarious work is proliferating. As Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden remind us, the ‘Standard Employment Relationship’ comprising “regular and regulated work based on a formal wage contract” has been the exception, not a rule, in the history of capitalist development. As such, we need to look beyond conceptions of standard, waged work as a normative underpinning for left politics, and instead allow for a heterogeneous conception of working relations in forging an inclusive agenda for work.

Secondly, stemming from the intensifying precarity of work, labourers are increasingly forced to reproduce themselves across vast geographical spaces, often spanning the rural-urban divide. Crucially, such a conceptualisation views rural smallholders that mainly depend on labour wages to reproduce themselves as being amongst global ‘classes of labour’. Any progressive agenda for work in this context must therefore move beyond dichotomies of agricultural wage workers and industrial labour forces, to look instead to how workers traverse spatial and sectoral boundaries to make ends meet.

We must ultimately call for a broadening of the conceptualisation of ‘work’, in terms of labour relations, space and sector. The future of work across much of the South reflects the need for such an agenda.


Nithya Natarajan is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.

Image Credit: Pawel Bienkowski / Alamy Stock Photo