The Salt of the Earth
Kampot, southern Cambodia.
The heat is infernal. Several salt farms lie outside of this small, sleepy riverside town. Large fields irrigated with saltwater stretch for miles across a flat and hot expanse. The evergreen Elephant Mountains loom in the distance, reflected in the stagnant shallow brine. Men and women, wrapped up in cloth against the fierce sun toil like slaves here all day. Some are still teenagers, all of them are nameless, faceless scarecrows. The workers earn just 6.000 Riel (1.5US$) for an ordinary day-shift. Some start as early as 3am, most begin to toil at 7am. Around midday, temperatures soar to 40 degrees and more.
Men and women scrape the salt into piles and then shovel it into baskets which they carry in pairs suspended from the two ends of a wooden pole that is heaved across the shoulder. A tried and tested way of moving the salt, common in China and South East Asia, back-breaking and never-ending. Some work barefoot, others wear socks. But the socks don’t not help much. Exposed skin is covered in salt and after some hours in the brine, one can feel it in one’s throat.
There is no supervisor to be seen, but the work never stops and never slacks. There is little conversation. Each worker scoops salt into his or her baskets and then carries them along the long low dikes between the fields to a warehouse near-by. Here they are dumped into a huge pile, which will eventually fetch 1000 Riel a kilo, though not for the workers.
By late afternoon, the work slows. The men and women are dog-tired and lifting the heavy baskets, dripping with water out of the salt fields, becomes a terrible chore. Conversation dies down altogether. A bus full of camera-toting tourists barely registers, but for a couple of women who pool their courage to ask the foerigners for a couple hundred riel. But they do so in a shy, unconvincing way, embarrassed to ask for the money. They are not beggars. Merely the slaves of our time.