Blood bricks: examining the climate change-modern slavery nexus in the Cambodian construction industry

Atith stokes the fire of a kiln at night to minimise the extreme temperatures he faces. Workers experience severe dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even premature death.
This photograph is the original work of Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom. © 2018 Royal Holloway, University of London.

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'Climate change and slavery: the perfect storm?' - this was the prescient headline of The Guardian (2013) which called for more international conversation on the links between these urgent threats to environmental and human security. This study forwards this call by examining the inter-linkages between climate change, different axes of structural inequality (e.g. gender, age), and vulnerability to trafficking into modern slavery. The project asks who is most at the 'receiving end' of climate change, is most likely to enter into modern slavery, and who has fewer capabilities and resources than others to adapt to climate change in alternative ways?

The research is based in Cambodia, the world's second most climate vulnerable country in 2014. This status derives not only from the heightened climate risks its faces in the form of floods and droughts, but also the lack of capacity to adapt and respond. Eighty percent of the population lives in rural areas with limited knowledge, infrastructure and opportunities; and more than 70 percent rely on agriculture that is heavily sensitive to climate change (UNDP 2014). In 2016, Cambodia also recorded the third highest proportion of modern slaves per capita in the world. Under these compelling set of circumstances then, the project focuses on the Cambodian construction industry as a means to examine how climate change facilitates trafficking into modern slavery and ongoing livelihoods within it. 

UK and Cambodian scholars will undertake challenging research that aims to combine qualitative interviews with construction industry informants and victims of modern slavery working in brick-kilns and construction sites; agro-ecological profiling, a quantitative household survey, and interviews in brick-kiln sender villages; and analysis of longitudinal secondary data (Cambodia Socio-Economic Study 2014). Findings will improve understanding of the 'deadly dance' of environmental destruction and modern slavery.

From the International Labour Organization's (ILO) '50 for freedom' global campaign, to the creation of the UK Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC), modern slavery has risen sharply up the international development agenda since 2015. Over a longer timespan, climate change has been described as 'the defining challenge of our age' (Goklany 2009). In this global context, the study looks to benefit debt-bonded brick labourers in Cambodia through more in-depth understanding of their lives and conditions to inform policy.

Policymakers: The research will provide a methodological tool and evidence base for the targeting of policies and interventions to those individuals and communities found most vulnerable to climate-triggered modern slavery. Our infographic report is a key mechanism to accessibly communicate our findings and policy recommendations.

NGOs and INGOs in Cambodia: The project will support their research and advocacy capacity through a methodology focused training workshop; regional 'blood brick' advocacy workshop; exhibition and online photo album which will support media uptake and act as an advocacy tool.

Construction clients and multinationals in Cambodia: Three experimental impact-oriented events will raise awareness of 'blood bricks' in the construction industry, and will aid understanding of the interests and incentives that might encourage these influential stakeholders to behave and act differently in their future support towards 'clean bricks'. Our research will contribute to initial work in academia on what businesses and partnerships can do to combat modern slavery.

The Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner: The research and network building via the mailing list, co-hosted academic event in London and regional advocacy workshop in Phnom Penh, will aid fulfilling of its 2015-2017 Strategic Plan.

Primary theme: 
Themes: 
Grant Reference: 
ES/R00238X/1
Project Status: 
Active
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Geography
Fund Start Date: 
September 1st, 2017
Fund End Date: 
February 28th, 2019
Fund Currency Code: 
GBP
Fund Value: 
246,329
climate-change
human-geography
sociology
development
Country: