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Additional Authors: Laurie Parsons, Nithya Natarajan, And Sopheak Chann
In October 2018, the research-led exhibition “Blood Bricks: Untold Stories of Modern Slavery and Climate Change from Cambodia” was held at The Building Centre, central London. The Building Centre is a hub for the built environment, providing a platform for the exchange and development of knowledge across the built environment industry. It runs an evolving programme of events and free exhibitions aimed to inspire and inform the sector and the wider public. Working together with photographer Thomas Cristofoletti from the Ruom Collective, and with participants’ permission, we sought to tell the life stories of debt-bonded brick workers in Phnom Penh, and how they came to be there. While the exhibition was temporary for a 3-week period, this photo essay provides a more permanent home for the exhibition.
The exhibition took many months of planning and in addition to collaborating with Thomas on photograph selection and captioning, we also worked with the graphic design agency Bison Bison to design the exhibition. Both Thomas’ and the agency’s role in the project had been planned and budgeted into our original grant application in 2016.
The opening of the exhibition was marked by a launch event for the research findings report aimed at UK government, NGO, and other charity stakeholders. In front of the 80+ audience, it was opened by William Longhurst, British Ambassador to Cambodia between 2014-2018, and who gave a speech on the political and economic situation in the country. We then gave a short talk which followed the journey of our findings in infographic form (Figure 27) and which was interspersed with photographs in the schematic transitions. The event was deliberately held a couple of days in advance of Anti-Slavery Day to raise awareness of modern slavery and address the knowledge gap on its links to climate change. We noted that while a week earlier the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had argued that limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C in the future would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health, and well-being, that our Blood Bricks study brought to the fore the significance of climate change in the here and now.
The exhibition and report launch gained widespread media coverage. The project’s findings have been reported by a wide range of national and global media outlets, including BBC Word News (TV), ABC News (TV), the Guardian (online), the Independent (online), the Thompson Reuters Foundation (online), Al Jazeera (online), The South China Morning Post (print/ online), The Conversation (online), Southeast Asia Globe (print/online), and the Phnom Penh Post (online). The photographs featured heavily in this media work and we methodologically stripped all the meta-data from them so that the locations could not be identified from the GPS coordinates in the files we supplied.
The interest generated has paved the way for impact-focused activities in Cambodia in early 2019. For example, in terms of traction at a national level in Cambodia, the research findings have already been raised with Cambodian government officials during a meeting organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Phnom Penh, and the Minister for Labour has responded to say that he will investigate the claims made in the research report. These were reported in the Phnom Penh Post.
Our study, ‘Blood Bricks: Examining the Modern Slavery-Climate Change Nexus in the Cambodian Construction Industry’ (2017-2019) was co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID). The project took its lead from the NGO study ‘Built on Slavery: Debt Bondage and Child Labour in Cambodia’s Brick Factories’ published in 2016 by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).  It demonstrated the widespread use of debt bondage in Cambodian brick factories and the role it plays in encouraging and sustaining child labour. The exhibition was also kindly supported by the Leverhulme Trust through its Philip Leverhulme Prize.
For more information about the ESRC-DFID funded study, including our project report and other academic outputs, please see www.projectbloodbrick.org. For updates, please also follow us on Twitter – @Blood_Bricks.
Cambodia is in the midst of a construction boom. The building of office blocks, factories, condominiums, housing estates, hotels, and shopping malls is pushing its capital city upwards. But this vertical drive into the skies, and the country’s status as one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, hides a darker side to Phnom Penh’s ascent. Building projects demand bricks in large quantities and there is a profitable domestic brick production industry using multigenerational workforces of debt-bonded adults and children to supply them.
Moving from the city, to the brick kiln, and finally back to the rural villages once called home, the exhibition traces how urban ‘development’ is built on unsustainable levels of debt taken on by rural families struggling to farm in one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.
Phnom Penh is being built not only on the foundation of blood bricks, but also climate change as a key driver of debt and entry into modern slavery in brick kilns. Blood bricks embody the converging traumas of modern slavery and climate change in our urban age.
Tracked from brick kilns to construction sites, we identified the use of blood bricks in the foundations of eight developments in Phnom Penh including a mix of condominiums, shops, restaurants, hotels, and office blocks. In doing so, the research highlighted that bricks moulded by debt-bonded labourers were embedded in some of the most prestigious construction projects across the city. These were mostly domestically-funded but evidence of foreign investment, from the United Kingdom, United States, and Singapore, was identified in at least one case. Blood bricks therefore offer a focal point from which to understand people’s lives behind the domestic and global growth story of Cambodia’s capital city.
Phnom Penh’s ‘Diamond Island’ (Koh Pich) is home to the capital’s most expensive and ostentatious building projects.
Two-bedroom apartments are advertised for sale upwards of £200,000; more than two hundred years’ wages for the average Cambodian. The high-end residential blocks are built on the former Boeung Kak Lake which was pumped with sand in 2008. Thousands of families were forcibly evicted from their homes with little or no compensation. Housing rights and the environment were sacrificed to make space for what is described as ‘A New World within the City’.
Brick kilns in Cambodia are confining thousands of men, women, and children, for years and even decades, inside their walls. Workers are not allowed to leave the kilns until debts are repaid, and any visits home to their villages to see sick relatives or celebrate annual festivals often require that a family member remain at the kiln. Bonds of affection are therefore used to maintain bonds of debt.
Whole worlds are created in these kiln walls: children are born, raised, and remain to become parents themselves. Many workers are deeply religious, viewing their lives as a necessary period of endurance within a wider cosmic scheme. This is a story of enduring humanity at the extremes of physical capacity.
Climate change is further testing workers’ hope in a future free from debt bondage. Unseasonal rains halt work as kilns are largely uncovered with rainwater risking the quality of drying bricks. In this period, workers are not allowed to leave kilns and seek other work, instead they are forced to borrow more from kiln owners to cover their daily expenses. Darkening skies means the raining down of further debt.
It is now commonplace for kilns to be fuelled using pre-consumer waste from Cambodia’s booming garment industry. Plastic bags, paper tags, and rubber offcuts also form part of the combustible materials used.
Machines like this present a serious danger of limb loss, but most workers have little choice but to use them given debts to the kiln owner. Boran’s family owes £2,000, far more than a brick worker can earn in a year.
Like other workers, her debt is repaid on a piece-rate basis and to increase production, fired bricks are often taken out of the kiln before being fully cooled. Workers report regular migraines, nosebleeds, and other, more serious illnesses as a result.
Most brick workers come to the kilns as a family unit. Many children begin to help their parents with light work in their early teens or even earlier, and trapped in intergenerational debt bondage, follow their parents into the industry for life.
Rotha has been working with her husband for over 20 years in the same kiln and still owes the kiln owner £1,000.
The brick industry has hollowed out rice fields for several miles around the kilns and up to 6 meters in depth. Under worsening agricultural conditions caused by climate change, many smallholder farmers have been forced to sell their land and some now work in the brick kilns.
To evade detection, workers unload logs at night. Once home to some of Southeast Asia’s oldest and most diverse forests, Cambodia has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. Since the 1970s, the country has lost over 95% of its primary rainforest and a third of its total forest cover.
Clothing ordinarily contains toxic chemicals including chlorine bleach, formaldehyde and ammonia. Heavy metals, PVC and resins are also commonly involved in dyeing and printing processes. Workers and their families report respiratory health problems believed to be linked to the polluted atmospheric conditions. The gaseous emissions from kilns have the potential to contribute to climate change.
Decades old, the single aeration point of this type of kiln makes it especially dangerous to workers due to the lethally high temperatures they experience when unblocking it after firing. At its peak, this kiln can reach 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The kiln is fired using garment off-cuts.
Sann stands surrounded by clothing labels sourced from Cambodia’s garment factories. The research identified well-known high-street brands on site; toxic fashion that connects the British consumer with the making of blood bricks and associated environmental and social harms.
Workers like Chantou collect, organise and sell off-cuts to the dump’s official middlemen. Although the sale of rags for burning is prohibited, the practice occurs widely.
This large landfill site, which almost exclusively serves Cambodia’s garment industry is the workplace for around 100 rubbish pickers.
Chantrea holds her two sons as they walk past a burning kiln fuelled with garment rags. Many children grow up on the hazardous kiln site and their access to education is typically limited.
Some children work in kilns after school (if they attend) or at the weekends to help their parents pay off debts faster. The kiln is a space of work and play for children.
Her family has a debt of £800, incurred when her brother had a major accident in their rural village. Unable to repay his medical expenses, they were forced to sell their house and move to the kiln. Most families live in single-roomed corrugated iron huts within the compound of the kilns.
Many brick workers are deeply religious and make sense of their current hardships through promise of a better next life. Brick kiln owners encourage workers to pursue a ‘good character’ as diligent workers and the subsequent merit it brings. In some cases this moral commitment is one of the key factors preventing workers from simply fleeing the kiln and abandoning their debts.
Rooted though they are in age-old rural hardships, the debts that drive farmers to the kilns are today driven by new realities. Long-term changes in the Cambodian climate combined with easy-to-access and unregulated credit and the rising cost of rural labour, has driven farmers to seek new rice varieties, requiring more capital-intensive farming methods, and thus a greater financial investment from the household. Without sufficient government support for struggling farmers, debt has become a key means of enabling agriculture to continue.
For some this process of marketisation has brought wealth and progress but for others it has simply brought risk. Despite their best efforts to adapt to climate change, farmers experience failed harvests and are left with debts far higher than the sale of their assets could repay. For these indebted farmers, the only remaining choice is to sell the family debt to the owner of a brick kiln and set out on what most know in advance will be a journey in one direction: to the kilns.
Many rural Cambodians report an increased presence of pests and rodents in recent years, understood to be driven by climatic shifts. This forces farmers to borrow money for chemical pesticides. Debt bondage is the adaptation cost of climate change.
In the past decade the village has experienced a drastic change in the amount of water available for irrigation. Whereas reliable seasonable floods once made the soil extremely fertile, farmers are now forced to spend money on gasoline to run pumps and on fertilizers and pesticides thus reducing their income and raising the risk from farming. When the harvest fails, driven by unseasonal floods and droughts due to climate change, loans for these inputs cannot be repaid, leaving many farmers with kiln-work as their only choice.
Female-headed households were twice as likely to be landless than male-headed ones. They were also over 25% more likely to have brick workers in their household.
Tevy, a 73-year-old woman, applies a mixture of rice wine and wild roots to her grandson’s broken arm in order to help reduce the swelling. A few days earlier he fell from a tree whilst collecting tamarind. Our research in brick-sender villages found that many families are only one illness away from having to follow departed neighbours who have entered brick work due to unsustainable debt.
Munny provides medical and spiritual services to residents of this brick sending village. This type of traditional medicine is particularly popular with brick workers and sending-village families who in many cases cannot afford to access formal medical services.
Achariya, a 19-year-old woman, jumps on her bike to ride to English class with a friend. Three years ago she lost her lower arm in a manual brick-moulding machine whilst living on a brick kiln with her family. The owner of the kiln only compensated her £200 for the accident. However, an NGO is helping her with financial contributions and she is now studying to become a teacher in the local school back in her home village.
- INCREASE SOCIAL PROTECTION, REGULATE MICROFINANCE, AND ENFORCE LABOUR AND TRAFFICKING LEGISLATION
- DECOUPLE EXPECTATIONS OF ‘GROWTH’ FROM ‘DECENT WORK’ AND HOLD CAPITAL TO ACCOUNT
- FOREGROUND OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND ACCESS TO UNIVERSAL HEALTH COVERAGE AS KEY AREAS FOR GLOBAL HEALTH POLICY
- ADOPT A MORE HOLISTIC APPROACH TO CLIMATE CHANGE AS A PHENOMENON THAT IS FUELLED BY ECONOMIC GRWOTH AND DEEPENS EXISTING VULNERABILITIES
- IMPROVE EFFECTIVENESS AND ACCESSIBILITY OF JUDICIAL MECHANISMS FOR HOLDING UK BUSINESS TO ACCOUNT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS COMMITTED OVERSEAS
Figure 28: Summary recommendations