Livelihoods Built on Sand: Exposing the Precarity of Labour in Cambodia’s Sand Extraction Industry

Lukas Van Arragon, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa


Tracking an Emerging 'Crisis': Sand and Sand Extraction in Southeast Asia


Although Cambodia banned sand exports in 2017, under-regulated sand extraction in rivers across the country continues, driven by demand from rapid urbanization and land reclamation around Phnom Penh. In the last decade, the industry has come under intense scrutiny for its role in riverbank erosion and degradation of aquatic ecosystems, with some activists and scholars highlighting how this damages livelihoods and displaces rural Cambodians. At the same time, the sand boom in Cambodia has created a demand for labour, offering opportunities to rural Cambodians who have few other livelihood options in their home provinces. However, the vast majority of wealth from sand extraction does not accrue to sand labourers. Using qualitative data gathered from various sand extraction and transportation sites along the Mekong in and around Phnom Penh, this paper reveals new insights into the sand industry, showing that sand labour in Cambodia is characterized by precarious employment conditions, including work in remote and isolated locations, separation of families when men leave for sand-related labour, a lack of formal work contracts or rights, an inability to diversify income sources, and unpredictable cycles of intermittent work. This paper aims to explain how the drive to extract sand from the Mekong River in Cambodia elucidates the interplay between precarious labour, resource extraction, and livelihoods. In doing so, this paper helps to broaden our understanding of the implications of a little understood yet hugely important resource extraction industry.

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