Lives in Brick: Bodies, Justice, Power by Katherine Brickell

Carting bricks in a Cambodian brick kiln (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom. Copyright©2018 Royal Holloway, University of London)

Carting bricks in a Cambodian brick kiln (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom. Copyright©2018 Royal Holloway, University of London)

In only a matter of weeks, the Blood Brick team will welcome workshop delegates to dwell on brick; described in Brick: A World History as ‘the simplest and the most versatile of materials, the most ubiquitous and the least regarded, all too familiar yet strangely neglected’. While this and the limited existence of other similar books are dedicated to the historical tracing and visual capturing of the spectacular and most beautiful – from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, to the Great Wall of China – the workshop will focus on more everyday and mundane engagements with this popular building material.

Our starting contention is that although bricks could be considered ordinary, they tell complex stories about bodies, (in)justice, and power. Bricks matter; their making and consumption having political, material and affective force as a vibrant form of infrastructure which mediates and organises life.

We have put together an exciting programme, including Professor Ian Cook leading a LEGO workshop.


PANEL ONE The Social Lives of Bricks

Timothy Edensor

‘Melbourne's Bricks: The Aftermath of a Suburban Industry’

Australia has long been the world's largest per capita consumer of bricks. For instance, Melbourne''s rapid 19th century growth  was fuelled by brick manufacture as bricks gradually came to replace stone as the preferred building material. The first brick clay pits were located in the inner suburbs, and by the 1860s there were more than 40 brickworks  in the suburb of Brunswick. Yet as production was scaled down  in the 1930s, a plethora of disused clay pits were subsequently used for rubbish and garbage disposal. Once filled in they ensured that the area has an extraordinary  concentration of small parks. For the unstable land could not be built on - and when this occurred, houses  slithered into the earth. In focusing upon the aftermath of this urban brick production, I will focus on this munificent legacy as well as the revaluing of the old bricks . What were formerly mundane building materials have now been re-labelled heritage objects, used to add allure to new buildings with the most valuable being those that are especially imperfect and idiosyncratic.

Tim Edensor teaches Cultural Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently a visiting scholar at Melbourne University. He is the author of Tourists at the Taj (Routledge, 1998), National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life (Berg, 2002) and Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (Berg, 2005), From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination and Gloom (Minnesota, 2017) as well as the editor of Geographies of Rhythm (2010) and co-editor of From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light (2018). Tim has written extensively on national identity, tourism, ruins, mobilities and landscapes of illumination and darkness. He is currently working on a project about urban materiality: Living with Stone in Melbourne.

Maria Panta

‘Bricks of Resilience’ bi-communal project in Southern and Northern Cyprus’

‘Bricks of Resilience’ aims to gather local knowledge of sun-baked (Adobe) brick making in Cyprus, both North and South, by engaging with communities both sides of the Green Line through adobe brick making. This project considers the locally made adobe brick as a tool to think about the potential for resilience and adaptation in Cyprus and enhance resilience on the ground. It builds upon the findings of a doctoral research project titled, “Approaches to the resilience and the potential for adaptation through community-driven construction projects in the global South” (2018), as well as handson involvement with locally produced adobe brick in rural Cyprus. Moreover, the project emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with our local resources as well as our fellow humans; it brings together the two communities through common heritage, namely the locally made sun-baked adobe brick. Finally, it demonstrates that the improvement of local building techniques and the transfer of skills contribute to the resilience of local communities in this context. In Cyprus, the adobe brick has been used extensively since the Neolithic era up until 1960s, which demonstrates the sustainability of the adobe buildings and ingenuity of both the local building techniques used by our ancestors as well as their construction process. However, in the past 60-80 years the growing globalization, modernization and urbanization on the island has had an impact on local housing and building patterns as well as the use of building materials including adobe construction. At the same time the industrialization of the construction industry has contributed to the gradual disconnection from the local cultures and resources, and has caused traditional buildingcraft skills and techniques related to earthen materials to become obsolete. Adobe has become denigrated as a product of the past and earth buildings have often been neglected and left to deteriorate. As a result, an extensive heritage of earth buildings was largely lost. Although academic research on the mechanical properties of adobe has been undertaken or is in progress in Cyprus, there is an imminent need for ethnographic 2 (qualitative) investigation of the use of adobe in order to explore the value, meaning and understanding of local culture and heritage through the sun-baked adobe brick in the context of Cyprus, as well as to holistically examine the factors, which may contribute to its promotion and widespread use, and how it may be adapted to our current needs.

Dr. Maria Panta, Canterbury School of Architecture, UCA, UK


David Kennett

‘The Cry of the Children of the Brickyards is Unheard from the Indus to Beyond the Yangtze’

In 1871, George Smith (1831-1895) published The Cry of the Children of the Brickyards in England, with several subsequent editions. The children working in the brickmaking industry in Victorian England were barefoot, were poorly dressed, carried heavy loads, were exposed to dangerous machinery and excessive heat (see illustration in Daily Graphic, 1871). The exploitation of children, as in other contemporary industries employing child labour, was legendary.

Working conditions in Victorian England are not dissimilar to those in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, to which is to be added the burdens of bonded labour and indentured servitude in India and adjacent countries in the sub-continent working in giant factories in remote rural areas. Examples exist of whole families working off debt. Children, both male and female, can be sold by parents to pay off agricultural debts and thus spend the whole brickmaking season away from their parents in poor conditions: long working hours, inadequate housing (often only a tarpaulin over sticks or a tree), limited food cooked using the heat of the kiln, poor pay if any, unshod feet, skimpy clothing, severe physical punishments including mutilation for trying to escape, and for women and girls sexual harassment and rape.

China has similar problems, not least unpaid wages or the cynical practice of paying the wages in bricks (how will the brickyard workers market them?) as well as long hours and inadequate housing.

Contrast Bolivia, where child brickyard workers have good quality boots, proper clothing, the opportunity for elementary schooling, training in brickmaking skills, and trade union rights.

David H. Kennett retired as Subject Leader for Sociology and Social Policy for Foundation Programmes at Stratford-upon-Avon College in 2010. His students included many from China seeking to widen their education before applying for and entering a British university.

David has been Editor of British Brick Society Information, the journal of the British Brick Society, since 1990, where he has published articles on conditions in the brickmaking and building industries in various parts of Asia as well as on many other topics relating to bricks and brick buildings. From 1969 to 1986, he was editor of Bedfordshire Archaeological Journal, now Bedfordshire Archaeology.

David has given presentations at both the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo MI, USA, and the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds UK. David holds degrees in Archaeology from Prifysgol Cymru, in Construction Management and Economics from Bristol Polytechnic, and in Techology and Society from the University of Salford.


PANEL TWO Building with Bricks

Felicity Cannell

‘Bricks, a Matter of Fact: exploring the dependence on the clay brick for new residential housing in England’

Amid calls, in parts of England, for some 250,000 new homes to be built per year there is little discussion over what these homes should be made of.  The clay brick is the default building material for most house builders in England, if not for the actual structure then certainly for the exterior façade.  The argument is that developers are building what homebuyers want, yet the design-and-build of mass housebuilding projects has changed very little over the past forty years in terms of structure, suggesting that innovation and change is concentrated within the four walls, while, without, the brick maintains a powerful position, unquestioned and unopposed.  The brick is a strong, versatile fire-proof artefact.  It is a resource-hungry building material, from cradle to grave, porous, cold in winter and hot in summer.  It breaks with the flick of a trowel.  Its multiple ‘magical’ material properties are dependent on the story line.  One narrative centres on culturally-specific meanings of home.  A sense of place, particularly in the suburbs, is sought through faint echoes of historic housing, the route to home ownership is heavily dependent on lending criteria of ‘traditional’ masonry construction, and spaces of construction are dominated by masculine identities embodied in the ‘wheelbarrow and muck’ methods of building with brick.  These themes, sense of place, home and gender are explored through the materiality of the brick, the singular thing-power and meanings of a mundane artefact which physically forms the backdrop of our daily lives.

Felicity is a PhD student at Sheffield University - currently writing up - and very excited about this workshop. She has spent 5 years researching brick in England.


Mel Nowicki, Ella Harris and Katherine Brickell

‘Destigmatising ‘housing for the homeless’: Affective infrastructures of brick-clad modular housing in Dublin.’

For many once homeless families now living in Dublin’s ‘Rapid Build’ housing, the term ‘modular’ had evoked imagery of emergency accommodation bearing no or little resemblance to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ housing. Some residents had concerns regarding the structural soundness and quality of the buildings, with such fears often connected to historical connotations of post-war prefabricated (‘prefab’) housing in Ireland. Drawing on Berlant’s 2011 work, we argue that the brick-cladding of their new modular homes is a mundane yet affective infrastructure that held an unanticipated significance in re-constructing a secure and positive sense of home after feelings of stigma, shame, and social marginalisation. The findings arise from interviews and focus group research undertaken between October-December 2017 with 21 residents from two Rapid Build housing estates and 12 key informants who had a professional stake in their design and development.

Dr Mel Nowicki is a Lecturer in Urban Geography at Oxford Brookes University. Mel's research focuses on urban housing exclusion and critical geographies of home. Current research explores the use of modular building technologies in social housing provision in Lewisham and Dublin, a project she is working on with colleagues Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway) and Dr Ella Harris (Goldsmith's). Mel's previous research includes an exploration of the impact of UK Coalition Government (2010–2015) housing policies on low-income Londoners, and the role of high-density housing in combating London’s housing crisis. 

Dr Ella Harris is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to this, she worked as a Research Assistant in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is an Urban and Cultural Geographer whose work explores pop-up culture, urban spatiotemporality and the affective geographies of precarity, as well as the methodological values of interactive documentary.   

Katherine Brickell is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on three foremost human rights issues, violence against women, forced eviction, and most recently, modern slavery.


PANEL THREE The Materiality of Bricks

Márton Berki

‘The ‘social’ within our walls: Stamped bricks as socio-material entanglements’

It is now a commonplace to say that cultural geography has been definitely re-materialised over the past couple of years. As a result of this materialist (re-)turn, an exceptionally broad variety of things and matters have been taken into consideration. In spite of this rich and widespread (and indeed, still rapidly expanding) work, however, no attention has been paid to one of our most mundane, most everyday material objects ― brick. The largest number and variety of so-called ‘stamped bricks’ (or, in other words, ‘inscribed bricks’) can be found on the territory of the former Kingdom of Hungary ― to date, approximately 35.000 different kinds of such bricks are known. On the example of this dazzling multifariousness, I aim to show how the whole spectrum of the ‘social’ is represented in an utterly material form, on bricks ― including ideology, politics, religion and spirituality, naturecultures, class, even sexuality. What is more, in that form, they literally surround us in our homes, workplaces, institutions, as well as the places of leisure, sociability, consumption or worship ― throughout our entire mundane journeys from the walls of our hospitals to those of our cemeteries. When properly used, however, these stamped bricks shyly hide their ‘messages’, as they are mortared to other (mostly unmarked) bricks. They are only revealed if their respective buildings collapse, or some of their parts are being repaired ― consequently the bricks, thus deterritorialised (Deleuze–Guattari 1987), start to tell their stories. Therefore, as paradoxical as it is, with the passing of time we will get to know more and more about these complex socio-material entanglements, especially if they are reterritorialised in stamped brick museums, local collections, exhibitions of industrial history, genealogy and heraldry, or in the form of contributions to a re-materialised cultural geography.

Márton Berki is senior lecturer in the Department of Social and Economic Geography, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary.

Frano Violich


BRICK: THICK/THIN aims to challenge perceived notions of brick and explore a material paradox that the discipline of architecture has constructed around the idea of brick and its status as a contemporary building material.  Today the notion of thickness has been replaced by a desire for the opposite, transparency and “thinness”.  Architects and engineers speak of “fighting a war on bending”, trying to find the thinnest, lightest, and most efficient means to deliver space anywhere in the world using computation tools for design, engineering, fabrication, and occasionally for assembly, where structure is looked at in only one way—by using “finite element analysis.”   Alternatively, there is a school of thought emerging from architects who work with limited means without the same computational tools, resources, and skilled workforce as their counterparts; and yet the work is as formally and spatially ambitious all the while responding to global challenges of affordability, climate change, and social relevance.  This latter strategy accepts the notion of “thickness”, knowledge through making, and is rooted in brick’s 6,000‐year history, where thickness, weight, and their resultant inefficiencies were a natural by‐product of form and surface, and where the tenets of masonry structure—the arch, vault, corbel, buttress, and the “architectural poché”—emerged.   What is argued here is that these divergent paths of “efficiency and efficacy” are creating a critical convergence where the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude toward materials deal with what Bruno Latour calls matters of concern and not matters of fact.  Are not matters of fact the culture of engineering that has led precisely to finite element analysis? How does one critique matters of fact if not to reframe the argument around the conditions that created them in the first place? What role can this ubiquitous material play in an increasingly global and digitized world of material production? Rather than accept an either/or condition, the discussion will explore and offer alternatives toward a more hybridic, both/and strategy.  

Juan Frano Violich, FAIA Principal, Kennedy & Violich Architecture Visiting Critic, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Call for contributors: Handbook of Displacement by Katherine Brickell

Boeung Kak eviction site, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo: Ben Woods)

Boeung Kak eviction site, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo: Ben Woods)

This is a call for chapters to be part of the ‘Handbook of Displacement’. It will be published by Palgrave in 2019. 

The Handbook of Displacement will offer an interdisciplinary intervention into studies of displacement in the Global North and Global South. While the study of displacement is usually framed in terms of refugees and those displaced by war, conflict or environmental disaster, the handbook questions the limits of official definitions of displacement and reveals the diverse circumstances in which people can be forced into mobility or immobility in and over different space/times. It does so through a wide-ranging collection of conceptual, methodological and empirical chapters from scholars across the humanities and social sciences, as well as practitioners and activists who are involved in interpreting, subverting, and resisting displacement across the world.

Together as co-editors from Royal Holloway Geography, we have commissioned the majority of chapters but are looking to find contributors for the following chapters/sections:

Conceptual Perspectives on Displacement (3,000 words inc. of references):

- Bio and/or necropolitics of displacement

- Political economy of displacement

- Human rights and rights-based approaches to displacement

Technologies of Displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- Artwashing


Journeys of Displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- Gender-based violence

- Sensory journeys of displacement


Traces of displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- Journalism


Materialities of displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- The smart phone

- Museums and curation


Representations of Displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- Displacement on screen/film

- Memorialising displacement

- Sound and displacement


Resisting displacement (up to 5,000 words inc. of references):

- Performing displacement and trauma: Dance and theatre


Further information:

- If you would like to contribute a chapter on any of these themes, please do get in contact. We ask that interested contributors (single or co-authored) email Katherine ( in the first instance. A working title and chapter abstract will then be needed by June 12 2018. The section editor will liaise with you on this. 

- If you have a suggestion for a different chapter which fits under these section headings then we are open to considering it.

- The deadline for chapter drafts to the editorial team is ideally by October 29 2018 but if longer is required, please do flag. 

- The chapters are intended as short syntheses/overviews of knowledge and debates in a particular area. 

- We are happy to provide section descriptions and any further information to interested authors to support their contribution.


Thank you!


Katherine Brickell (Pete Adey, Janet Bowstead, Vandana Desai, Mike Dolton, Alasdair Pinkerton, and Ayesha Siddiqi)

Making Connections: Modern Slavery, Environmental Destruction, and Climate Change by Katherine Brickell


We are delighted to be co-hosting the scoping workshop 'Modern Slavery, Environmental Destruction and Climate Change' on 6 June 2018. In this exploratory workshop our aim is to interrogate how environmental change, manifested as climate change, resource depletion or ecological catastrophe, is interlinked with the rise of precarious, informal work across much of the Global South today. We are looking forward to welcoming scholars from a wide range of disciplines together with development practitioners to share evidence and perspectives on these too often overlooked connections.


PANEL ONE Conceptualising, defining and measuring

Doreen Boyd

‘Slavery from Space: Informing the Slavery/Environment Nexus; Resulting in the Antislavery Ecosystem’

There is growing evidence of the tightly coupled relationship between modern slavery and environmental change. The source of one such piece of evidence is remote sensing – the sensors on board satellites that capture imagery of our world. In this presentation a number of studies will be highlighted that have used remote remotely sensed data to allow for the informed analyses of how modern slavery is driving environmental change. The presentation will outline the real potential of using these data to produce a global slavery environmental footprint. Further, the vision of the Antislavery Ecosystem Project which aims to both (i) to compile, synthesise and integrate spatial data on the environmental changes that result from slavery activities and (ii) to calculate the environmental costs of these activities, and the potential gains that stem from curtailing slavery, with a focus on carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services, will be outlined. The presentation will conclude with some thoughts on how existing indices can be used to amalgamate the two perhaps hitherto silos of endeavour on measuring modern slavery and environmental performance in the eventual aim of realising that these are inherently linked and addressing one should provide respite for the other.

Dr Doreen Boyd is Associate Professor and Reader in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, UK with expertise and research interests in spatial data describing our Earth (principally underpinned by remote sensing) and using the patterns revealed between “people and pixels”. As part of the University of Nottingham’s Beacon of Excellence Rights Lab Doreen is leading two interlinked projects: “Slavery from Space” and “Antislavery Ecosystem”. This work while still in its infancy has already attracted significant attention and funding support from the Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the British Academy.

Ayushman Bhagat

‘Exploring vulnerabilities created through post-disaster anti-trafficking interventions’

The international community has recently started contemplating vulnerability of the people living in high migration zones in the light of natural disasters as one of the means, and human trafficking forced labour and slavery (TFLS) as the end to that means. But there is a policy interest in understanding whether and how disasters impact these areas where people are often considered as vulnerable towards TFLS situation. This juxtaposition of the means and the end – natural disasters and TFLS respectively - has all the potential to spark sensational discussions offering several policy recommendations, which upon implementation has disproportional implications on the lives of people. Hence, unpacking both the narratives critically, whilst thinking through the space where this synergy would take us towards is of utmost importance. Drawing from a recently completed participatory research in an area that saw tremendous loss of lives and infrastructures during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, I would like to argue that by examining various anti-trafficking interventions that took place in the aftermath of the disaster and its possible implications on the people - often tagged as vulnerable towards TFLS - we might be able to envisage the invisible spaces of exploitation created as a result of such interventions.

Ayushman Bhagat is a PhD candidate in (Human) Geography (and Law) at Durham University. He is currently studying whether and how pre- and post-disaster mobility governance enables/disables movement of people in an area of global South which is considered to be prone to human trafficking. Before enrolling in as a research postgraduate, he worked in the development sector of India where he explored issues related to forced/bonded labour, human trafficking, gender, skill development at a policy level, and assisted several forest-dwelling communities in the evolution of self-governing institutions in and around wildlife sanctuaries at the grassroots level. He is trying to combine both the experiences that he obtained while working with NGOs, trade unions, government departments – labour, women and children, and tribal development – social sector consulting, and a specialized United Nations agency (the ILO) in a theoretically charged participatory action research which broadly aims to bring people’s perspective on their mobilities to the fore.

David Brown

‘Opening up the Nexus between Climate Change, Environmental Destruction and Modern Slavery: A Review of Literature’

This research is based on a state-of-the-art literature review that conceptualises a three-way nexus between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change. In doing so, it critically interrogates the existing literature that has indicated interrelationships between the three and aims to bring new insights to current understandings these phenomena. Research on the modern slavery-environmental destruction-climate change nexus is carried out in the context of the SDGs which explicitly direct attention towards all three of these global challenges. In reviewing and critically evaluating the literature on the nexus, the linkages between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change can be better understood and pathways for future research and policy directions can be proposed.

David is a research associate on the Anti-slavery Ecosystem project in the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham. This is a research project that is examining the tight connection between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change. In collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London, David is currently working on developing an extensive and critical review of current literature that cuts across these three areas. David has recently completed his PhD at Coventry University that examined the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) framework through a climate justice lens and from a multiscalar perspective.


PANEL TWO Modern slavery in forests, fisheries, and factory

Maureen Lempke

‘Comparative study of the links between trafficking in persons and environmental degradation associated with deforestation’

Verité is conducting a two- year research project to explore the link between forestry-linked environmental degradation, forced labor and trafficking in persons (TIP) in Mexico, Burma, and Mozambique. The linkages between environmental degradation and human trafficking have been explored in research by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP),1 the International Labour Organization (ILO),2 the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Verité, and the US State Department.3 Although this connection has become increasingly accepted, more detailed research exploring the nature and mechanisms of these connection is needed. In these countries, up to and over 50 percent of logging is estimated to be illegal. Workers in illicit industries within the forest sector, such as illegal logging, are inherently at greater risk of labor trafficking since they cannot turn to the authorities for help and their employers operate out of sight of law enforcement. Workers in legal forest concessions may be subject to debt bondage and other forms of forced labor. Additionally, populations that have experienced loss of land due to land grabs or environmental degradation are often forced into a landless underclass with few economic options and are also at higher risk of being trafficked. This study will explore TIP that results from logging activities, as well as TIP which may result from general vulnerability brought about by deforestation and concomitant environmental degradation. As part of this project, Verité will engage with environmental, wildlife-protection, or other associated organizations in these regions to integrate awareness of human trafficking into their agendas and bolster their capacity to recognize and address human trafficking.

Maureen Moriarty-Lempke Ph.D. has 20 years of experience in international development and specializes in land tenure and property rights issues in conflict-affected areas including Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Russia, Ukraine, Somalia, and more. She has worked with the World Bank, the UN, bilateral donors, and smaller mission driven organizations. Maureen is a researcher at Verité, providing expertise on the intersection between land and forest sector dynamics and vulnerability to trafficking in persons. She also currently serves as a visiting lecturer at Duke University's Program in International Development Policy and teaches courses related to land, conflict, and human security.

Jess Sparks

‘Slavery in Marine Ecosystems’

Despite media attention detailing labor abuses in fisheries, social-ecological systems research has largely failed to consider whether fish stock declines could be contributing to increases slavery. Using fuzzy cognitive mapping—a participatory, semi-quantitative systems modeling technique that uses participants’ knowledge to define complex system dynamics including fuzzy causality (represented as a matter of degree on a spectrum rather than certainty)—we tested the hypothesis by interviewing stakeholders and fishers from global slavery hotspots (n=74). Due to the topic’s sensitivity, both stakeholders (n = 43) and fishers (n = 31) were recruited through a non-probability, convenience sample using snowball techniques that purposefully recruited participants from Southeast Asia, western Africa, eastern North America, western South America, Europe, and Oceania and the Pacific. All participants were interviewed by a researcher also certified as a forensic interviewer of human trafficking victims. In total, fifty-six (75.7%) participants identified slavery as an outcome of marine fish stock declines’ pressures on narrowing profits. Adjacency matrices’ metrics calculated from participant maps indicated illegal fishing, environmental regulations (e.g., marine protected areas and catch shares/quotas), and “the race to fish” as influential variables impacting the relationship. Participants also described increased wildlife crimes as an outcome of increased slavery. Therefore, improved understanding of the complex, and oft unintended, system feedbacks between two historically disparate problems has the potential to lead to new and innovative holistic interventions and policies that simultaneously mitigate illegal and overfishing while improving human rights to aid some of the world’s most vulnerable, fish-dependent communities.

Jess Sparks is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (Colorado, USA); adjunct faculty at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University (Massachusetts, USA); and a 2017 fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program. Her research interests are in social-ecological justice and the relationship between environmental degradation and forced labor and slavery, particularly in marine ecosystems. Her doctoral dissertation is exploring associations between overfishing-induced marine fish stock declines and increases in forced labor and slavery in the context of inadequate international, regional, and local maritime labor policies and natural resource governance.

Laurie Parsons

‘Blood bricks: Climate change and modern slavery in Cambodia’

Climate change deniers have a point. Climate change is not captured by the statistical indices that purport to prove it. Rather, as an abstract relational entity rooted in locality, cultures and livelihoods, it is created by those who perceive it. To discuss the human dimensions of climate change is therefore to consider seven billion trajectories, each deeply embedded in a local and relational set of norms. Yet where the climate is represented to the public or those that represent them any such nuance is lost. At political summits such as the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, the climate is invariably viewed in numerical and universalist terminology. As a process, the contemporary inequalities that drive it are elided in favour of a dichotomy constructed between present and future generations. Discourse centres on adapting behaviour for a depoliticised global youth, thereby stripping the phenomenon of both immediacy and intimacy. It becomes a problem rendered in the subjunctive; a threat to be avoided, rather than an ongoing devastation of the rights, lives and labours of the weak. Taking Cambodia – one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries – as its subject, this presentation therefore explores climate change at a human scale. It makes a case for the embodied physicality of climate change: the illness, disability and death not captured by the numbers, but above all it interrogates how economic systems and labour frameworks shape and direct these changes. As outlined here, slavery in the form of bonded and exploitative labour is no local aberration, but a global economic response to ecological precarity.

Laurie Parsons is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Royal Holloway and Co-investigator of Project Blood Bricks. A researcher of Cambodian livelihoods since 2008, Laurie Parsons's work investigates the impact of mass labour migration and ecological change on socio-economic inequalities. It combines a variety of approaches - including visual and statistical analysis of social networks, and qualitative methods - to discern how norms and social structures both reflect and mediate these new conditions. He has conducted large-scale projects examining Cambodia’s uneven economic development for Transparency International, Plan International, Save the Children, CARE International, ActionAid, the IDRC and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, among others


PANEL THREE Modern slavery and current and emerging agendas

Andreas Chatzidakis and Deirdre Shaw

Modern Day Slavery: Consumer Perspectives’

It is estimated that up to 1,243,400 people are modern slaves across Europe, working in industries such as domestic work, agriculture, restaurants/food service, and the sex trade. Within the UK, both academic (e.g., Crane, 2013; Skinner, 2008) and practitioner understandings of modern slavery have been increasingly nuanced, particularly after the introduction of the “Modern Slavery Act”. There is, however, a surprising lack of research on the consumer, despite the fact that raising consumer awareness is recognised as key in the battle for the abolition of modern slavery (Bales, 2012; van den Ander, 2004) and modern slavery is having devastating environmental impacts (Bales, 2016). In this research, we explore a number of key questions in relation to consumer perspectives, including: What do consumers understand as modern slavery? How do consumers understand vulnerabilities in modern day slavery? And how do consumers cope with the negative social and environmental consequences of modern slavery? We conducted in-depth interviews with 30 informants in 3 UK cities over two phases of research. Our analysis exposes two pivot points at the core of consumer obliviousness and the representation of categories of modern slaves. First, consumer judgements of vulnerability drive representations of authenticity in claims to slavehood; with enslaved animals sometimes being rated more highly than adult human slaves. Other environmental concerns were rarely mentioned. Second, perceptions of the locus of responsibility—internal or external—underpin consumers’ emotive responses and willingness to act.

Andreas is a Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, which he joined in 2007, after completing his PhD at University of Nottingham. His doctoral research was focused on social psychological and attitudinal models of consumers’ “ethical” choices such as buying Fair Trade products and recycling. Since then he has became more broadly interested on the intersection of consumption with ethics and politics drawing from diverse disciplines such as sociology, human geography, gender studies and psychoanalysis.

Deirdre is Professor Marketing and Consumer Research at University of Glasgow. Deirdre has researched the area of consumption ethics throughout her career, publishing on the subject in a range of international journals (including Psychology and Marketing, Journal of Business Ethics, European Journal of Marketing, Business History, Journal of Marketing Management, Sustainable Development), contributing to books and non-academic publications, giving invited talks and supervising PhD researchers in this area.

Steve Trent

'Pirates and Slaves - Forced, Bonded and Slave Labour in the Seafood Sector'

Findings will be presented from EJF investigations on land and at sea in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea that exposed systematic use of slavery in the Thai seafood sector. A short 5 minute film will be shown made by EJF and highlighting the abuses they uncovered. 

Steve Trent has over 25 years experience in environmental and human rights campaigning, creating effective advocacy and communications campaigns and field projects, as well as leading investigations in over 40 countries. He is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) Steve also co-founded WildAid, serving as President for over a decade, and leading WildAid’s work in China and India. Prior to this Steve was the Campaigns Director at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).


A meeting of Kingdoms: Showcasing the depth and diversity of UK research on Cambodia by Katherine Brickell


On May 31st 2018, the Blood Bricks team are bringing together UK-based experts working on Cambodia for the first time. The event, hosted by Royal Holloway, University of London will provide a space for the researchers to present their findings, share their stories and learn from each other. At this critical time in Cambodian politics, our discussion aims to foster a community of scholars for future advice, support, and collaboration, encompassing topics as diverse as music, geopolitics, and education in the Kingdom.

Beginning with an introduction to the Blood Bricks project and our early findings, this full day event is structured around three cross-cutting themes: Nationality, Democracy, Education, and Refuge; Faith, Art, Music, and Politics; and Commodity Histories, Chains, Geopolitics and Policies. By exploring these intersections, we aim to present a panoramic snapshot of Cambodia today, inform our ongoing work, and mould a sense of shared identity around Cambodian scholarship in the UK.

The day-long workshop will conclude with a screening of the award-winning film A Cambodian Spring and a Q & A with its director Chris Kelly and participant the Venerable Luon Sovath.

Workshop abstracts and participant biographies

Welcome and Introduction to the Blood Bricks project, Katherine Brickell (RHUL) and Laurie Parsons (RHUL)

PANEL ONE: Nationality, Democracy, Education, and Refuge

‘Social Media and Democracy in Cambodia: Challenges and Opportunities’

Marc Pinol (Bristol University)

Southeast Asian youth are heavy users of social media networks, and Khmer people are no exception. At the same time, political elites have also become very active on the net. This triggered series of opportunities and challenges for both parts, something that is inevitably shaping the domestic political landscape.

Marc is a first-year PhD student at the University of Bristol, doing research on the impact of Facebook on the status of democracy in Cambodia. After obtaining his master’s degree in East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, he lived four years in Southeast Asia: three of them in Cambodia as a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, in Phnom Penh, and then teaching social sciences and politics to undergraduate students. For one year he also taught social sciences to undergraduates in Thailand. Marc’s interest in Cambodia started after several solo journeys across Asia & Southeast Asia and visiting Cambodia for the first time in 2012. But the turning point was the chance to witness in first person the elections of 2013; it was back then when he decided to further his knowledge on the Khmer society.

‘Developing teacher capacity in Cambodia’

Elizabeth King

The research explores the issue of how best to develop teacher capacity in Cambodia. Using a case-study methodology data was collected, primarily, through semi-structured interviews with educators in government primary schools in three diverse locations. It proposes an expanded model of capacity development better suited to the Cambodian context.

I have extensive experience working in the education sector in Cambodia at macro, meso and micro levels, working with the Ministry of Education and a range of multilateral, bilateral and Non-Governmental Organisations. My PhD thesis, set within the wider context of the globalisation of education policy, explored the challenges surrounding teacher capacity development in Cambodia. My research focus is on teacher quality; on issues concerned with introducing learner-centred approaches in traditional cultures; and on teacher status and rights. Until my recent return to the UK I lectured at the University of Melbourne's Graduate School of Education, where I gained my PhD. I hold an MA in Education and International Development from UCL, Institute of Education, where I gained my PGCE in History/Politics, and a BA (Hons) in Politics from the University of Liverpool.

‘Modes of belonging among children with undetermined nationality. The Cambodian case.’

Charlie Rumsby (Coventry University)

The intimate worlds of Cambodia’s stateless children are ethnographically detailed through visual methodologies. In particular, how they experience identity and belonging.

Charlie Rumsby is an anthropologist at the Migration, Displacement and Belonging research group of the Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Her recent work explores identity and belonging among children with undetermined nationality living in Cambodia and covers themes such as citizenship, human rights, morality, religious conversion, ethnicity and inter-generational mobilities. She is particularly interested in using visual methodologies to explore how communities on the margins negotiate place and navigate their way through informal and formal pathways; what strategies communities employ to live side by side peacefully within hostile environments. Her recent publications include ‘Researching Childhood Statelessness’ in The World’s Stateless Children, ed. by van Waas, L. and de Chickera, A. Wolf Legal Publishers (2017), and 'Acts of Citizenship and Alternative Perspectives on Voice among Stateless Vietnamese Children in Cambodia', Statelessness Working Paper Series (2015).

‘Sheltering from Violence: Women’s Experiences of Safe Shelters in Cambodia’

Naomi Graham (Royal Holloway)

Evidence shows that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence faced by women in Cambodia. However, the options for support are limited. This presentation will provide an overview of an ongoing doctoral project that explores women's experiences of seeking refuge in NGO run safe shelters in Cambodia.

Naomi Graham is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research explores the experiences of women living in NGO run safe shelters in Cambodia.

PANEL TWO: Faith, Art, Music, and Politics

‘How Religious Faith is Conceived as Benefiting Clients in Christian Anti-Trafficking Faith-Based NGOs in Cambodia’

John Frame (University of Oxford)

How do leaders of FBOs conceive of the ways in which religious faith might affect their clients? This presentation examines this question in the context of Christian FBOs in Cambodia that work with women and children who have been sexually exploited, trafficked, or involved in the sex trade. The presentation brings conceptual clarity to the relationship between faith practices and their perceived benefits. It introduces a schematic model that outlines the ways FBO leaders understand faith practices as benefiting FBO clients, thus providing an analytical tool for those seeking to understand the relationship between faith and its impact on clients in other geographical contexts.

John Frame is a DPhil candidate in the Dept. of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, studying faith-based and secular NGOs in Cambodia. He has worked in local government in the USA, held two consultancies at UNDP (Istanbul), and is an adjunct faculty member of the M.A. in Nonprofit Management Programme at Adler University (Chicago).

‘The Process of Re-Construction and Revival of Musical Heritage in Contemporary Cambodia’

My talk aims to show the ways in which Khmer musical heritage, particularly traditional music and some kinds of theatre genres, is re-shaped, promoted and restored by local NGOs, mass media and young performers in an effort to re-construct Khmer cultural identity.

Francesca Billeri (SOAS)

Francesca Billeri is a PhD candidate in Music at SOAS University of London. In 2002 she achieved a piano diploma at the Conservatoire in Italy. In 2009 Billeri undertook a research on Cambodian traditional wedding music to complete a Master degree at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. Part of this work is published in Asian Musicology 2016. In 2013 she organized the first Khmer music workshop at SOAS gathering scholars from France and Italy. Billeri’s PhD research focuses on the exchange of repertoires of Khmer wedding music and other traditional genres including music accompanying healing ceremonies (phleng arak) and two kinds of popular theatre (lakhon yikè and lakhon bassac). Her research interests include the effects of the ongoing process of preservation and revival of Khmer traditional music operated by local NGOs, mass media and governmental institutions. Recently, an article on this topic has been published in Moussons 30.

‘Faces of Cambodia: Portraits, Power and Memory'

Joanna Wolfarth (SOAS)

My research explores representational strategies employed to convey forms of Buddhist power, sovereignty and memory in the Cambodian politico-cultural milieu. I work across mediums and time periods, looking at visual culture from Angkor to the contemporary.

Dr Joanna Wolfarth is a specialist in Buddhist art and the cultural history of Cambodia. She received her PhD in Art History from the University of Leeds in 2015 and is currently a Research Associate at the Centre of South East Asian Studies at SOAS University of London. She also teaches on the Modern and Contemporary Asian Art MA at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She has published in Udaya Journal of Khmer Studies, Southeast of Now and the Trans Asia Photography Review, and also contributed a chapter to the Handbook on Contemporary Cambodia (Routledge, 2016). She has worked on several cultural projects in Cambodia since 2010.

‘Post-conflict Performance in Cambodia: nationality, identity and geopolitics.’

Amanda Rogers (Swansea University)

My current research examines how contemporary Cambodian dance is used to reimagine the production of the Cambodian nation. Much of the reconstruction and revival of Cambodian dance has emphasised narratives of survival and survivors. In contrast, my research examines how a younger generation of dancers are developing new modes of expression. In moving beyond associations with the Khmer Rouge, the contemporary Cambodian dance world navigates a series of issues, including the relationship between nationality and globalisation, the desire among international audiences for Khmer Rouge stories, and issues of self-censorship and social expectation. My work explores these dynamics through a focus on recent dance productions.

Dr Amanda Rogers is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at Swansea University. Her research focuses on the intersections between geography and the performing arts (particularly theatre and dance) and is especially concerned with themes of racial inequality, transnationalism and geopolitics. Her current work focuses on the relationship between dance and nationality in Cambodia, particularly through contemporary modes of expression. However, she is also doing research on the first international tour of Cambodian state dancers to the West after the Khmer Rouge genocide. This work is funded by a British Academy-Leverhulme Trust small grant and examines if, and how, dancers can be considered geopolitical agents navigating issues of cultural diplomacy and development.

PANEL THREE: Commodity Histories, Chains, Geopolitics and Policies

‘Fur, Feathers, Scales and Ivory: Cambodian Wildlife Protection Legislation in International and Regional Perspective’

Ernest Caldwell (SOAS)

This brief presentation has two primary goals.  First, it seeks to clearly demonstrate the threats to Cambodia’s biodiversity, with specific reference to terrestrial wildlife.  Second, it compares Cambodia’s wildlife legislation and conservation policies to such threats with a) the standards established by international environmental treaties to which the country is a Party State, and b) to the wildlife legislation of other member states of ASEAN. This is part of a larger book project examining the diversity of wildlife protection law in Southeast Asia and the continuing ASEAN quest for legal convergence of its member states’ environmental laws.

Dr. Ernest Caldwell [BA, MA, LLM, PhD] is Lecturer in Laws of China and Taiwan for the School of Law at SOAS, University of London. He holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in history, Asian studies, and comparative law. He completed is postgraduate legal training in Singapore, specializing in comparative Southeast Asian law. Ernest is currently working on a book project that analyzes the diversity of wildlife-related legislation among ASEAN member states in order to assess the potential for developing a cohesive, regional approach to wildlife protection and conservation.

‘Silk in Contemporary Cambodia: Weaving a History of Survival (1990-2017)’

Magali Berthon (Royal College of Art)

My thesis focuses on the history of silk in contemporary Cambodia as a material, production, and cultural phenomenon since the reopening of the country in the 1990s in a post-conflict context. Artisanal and artistic practices and their human and cultural dimensions, mechanisms of skill transmission in exodus contexts, migration movements and situations of conflict, and Southeast Asian identities are at the heart of my work.

Magali An Berthon is a French Vietnamese textile researcher focusing on Southeast Asian textiles, local craft cultures, and sustainable processes. She is currently a PhD candidate in History of Design at the Royal College of Art in London researching the dynamics of silk heritage in contemporary Cambodia. After earning an MFA in textile design at the National School of Decorative Arts of Paris, she studied textile history and museum practices at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2014-2015. She continued with a one-year fellowship at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in Curatorial Textiles.

‘Intimate geopolitics of garment work and labour activism in Cambodia’

Sabina Lawreniuk (Royal Holloway)

A seven billion dollar industry. Eight hundred thousand workers. One thousand factories. Three thousand trade unions with 90% female membership yet 90% male leadership. One hundred strikes last year. A ‘model industry’ yet mass faintings. Third sector governance. An authoritarian government that forcibly restricts freedoms of expression, association and assembly. In the fraught, complex context of the Cambodian garment sector, what chance do workers have to challenge big brand buyers for fair pay and working conditions – and which workers?

I am currently (2017-2020) a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. My Leverhulme project integrates a feminist geopolitical approach to the study of Global Production Networks in geography, through an institutional ethnography exploring work, intersectional inequality and activism in the garment sector in Cambodia.

‘Country For Sale by the Tonne: Charting the commodity chain of contagious sovereignty from Cambodia to Singapore’

Will Jamieson (Royal Holloway)

On the 12th of June 2017, the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy declared a ban on all exports of sand to Singapore. According to the Ministry, Cambodia had exported 12 million tonnes of sand to the city-state since 2007. The city-state declared imports exceeding 72 million tonnes, an appropriate quantity for building land into the sea; or an invasion inverted: a reclamation. In the interim, both countries developed at a ferocious pace, with cities like Phnom Penh acquiring an elite verticality suspiciously reminiscent of Singapore itself. While, for now, the sand itself does not seem to be flowing, all the machinery is in place for it to pick up again, and the traces of this parasitic commodity chain has manifested itself in the most peculiar ways. This presentation will attempt to trace the 'farm-to-table' geography of sand extraction, while lingering on the eerie replication of landscape at either end of the commodity chain.

William Jamieson is a PhD candidate in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His work is concerned with the integration of political geography and literary theory through critical creative writing methods to enhance our understanding of how space is 'read' and 'written' by capital. His  work has been published in the journal GeoHumanities, and his fiction has appeared in Ambit and Myths of the Near Future. His fiction pamphlet, Thirst for Sand, will be published in Autumn 2018 by Goldsmiths Press.




The climate change-modern slavery nexus: Why study Cambodia? by Christian Davies

Image: On the move © Thomas Cristofoletti

Image: On the move © Thomas Cristofoletti

Modern slavery is a global issue that is also lived and felt in Cambodia. It is a country whose highly mobile population is influenced in its movements by large but uneven financial flows, a capricious natural environment and low levels of regulation. It is a country heavily reliant on primary agriculture, both nurtured and exposed by an unusually flat topography incorporating the flood plains of the Mekong Delta and the Tonle Sap, but also one in which a strong culture of migration and brokerage engenders a willingness to leave the land. Yet what makes Cambodia so unusual is the set of geographical and historical circumstances that has made it uniquely vulnerable to both slavery and the effects of climate change.

Indeed, Cambodia is a country in which state apparatus have wholly failed to keep place with economic growth. Since the Kingdom’s first democratic elections in 1993 signalled the start of a wave of foreign investment and the meteoric rise of both the construction and garment industries, the latter expanding 200 fold between 1995 and 2015, development has remained largely untrammelled. During this time, around a million Cambodians have take up work in these industries, yet their choices have not always been free. The newfound wealth provided by the modern sector has been accompanied by growing pressures on agriculture, forcing many to leave their homes even without the assurance of a job in a factory or construction site.

Many succeed in making a living through informal work or chance connections, but many, equally, do not. The worst off and the most desperate amongst Cambodia’s struggling farmers and would-be migrants often are the most vulnerable to entrapment in bonded labour, intergenerational debt, or other forms of modern slavery.  It is these people who are the subject of this project, which explores Cambodia as a site where the combination of high vulnerability to climate change, high mobility and vulnerability to modern slavery.

Climate Change in Cambodia

Since the year 2000, when three successive years of floods and droughts devastated agricultural yields throughout the Kingdom (Oeur et al., 2014), Cambodians have become increasingly familiar with the effects of climate change. The growing unpredictability of rainfall has hit traditional agriculture hard, squeezing the livelihoods of the many citizens who depend on it to the extent that Cambodia was ranked the world's second most climate vulnerable country by the UNDP in 2014. Indeed, Cambodia’s vulnerability to climate change derives not only from the heightened climate risks its faces in the form of floods and droughts, but also its 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).

Image: Rural Cambodia © Thomas Cristofoletti

Image: Rural Cambodia © Thomas Cristofoletti

The combination of these conditions means that Cambodia’s population experience climate change in an unusually intimate manner. For the nation’s many farmers and those who depend on them, climate change is not a matter for global scientific debate, but an everyday, local, reality. Solutions are not awaited from outside, but sought and found by households facing crop failure and penury. Some sell land, others buy more, but a growing number migrate for work, often finding themselves trapped in difficult and dangerous working conditions to service rising levels of household debt. It is this process of adaptation that this study addresses, aiming as it does to understand the specific conditions that lead those affected by climate change into conditions so exploitative, that they are classed as modern slavery.

Modern slavery in Cambodia

Modern slavery in Cambodia is an issue which touches on all aspects of national life. It is not only an extensive phenomenon – in 2016, Cambodia recorded the third highest proportion of modern slaves per capita in the world, according to the Global Slavery Index (Walk Free Foundation, 2016) – but a pervasive one also. Scoping research by the NGO LICADHO (2016) has discovered that the thriving domestic brick production industry relies on a workforce of modern-day slaves - multigenerational families of adults and children from rural villages working in hazardous factories on the outskirts of the country's capital city, Phnom Penh. Typically unable to pay a local money lender, their loan was transferred to the brick-kiln owner, upon which time they became bonded labour in the factory and were unable to earn back the amount 'owed'.

Image: Brick-making factory, Cambodia © LICADHO (2016)

Image: Brick-making factory, Cambodia © LICADHO (2016)

This exploitation casts Cambodia’s recent development in a sinister light. Construction, whether foreign or domestic funded, has lain at the core of Cambodia’s economic boom over the past two decades and the Cambodian construction industry is now the second most important growth driver in the country, after the garment sector (World Bank 2014). Bricks are central to all of this, yet even the marginal regulatory gains seen across the sector as a whole have failed to translate to the production of materials. No substantive legislation exists regarding brick kilns, or the conditions in which their employees work.

As a result, economic growth, mobility, climate change, and modern slavery are inseparable entities in Cambodia. Even as investment stokes an ever growing need for construction and constructors, a capricious natural environment has pushed an even greater number into unplanned and broker driven mobility and thus high vulnerability to exploitative labour. Under this compelling set of circumstances, 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.


LICADHO (2016). Built on Slavery: Debt Bondage and Child Labour in Cambodia’s Brick Factories. Phnom Penh: LICADHO.

Oeur, I. L., Sopha, A., & McAndrew, J. (2012). Understanding Social Capital in Response to Flood and Drought: A Study of Five Villages in Two Ecological Zones in Kampong Thom Province. Pellini, A. (ed.) Engaging for the Environment, 60-84.

United Nations Development Program [UNDP] (2014). Cambodia Turns Climate Change Crisis into Opportunity

Walk Free Foundation (2016). Global Slavery Index Report 2016. Claremont: Walk Free Foundation.

World Bank (2014). Clear Skies: Cambodia Economic Update. Phnom Penh: World Bank Press

From blood diamonds to blood bricks by Christian Davies

Image: Child labourer on a Cambodian brick-making factory ©LICADHO (2016)

Image: Child labourer on a Cambodian brick-making factory ©LICADHO (2016)

The evocative term 'blood diamonds' has long been lodged in popular consciousness. Referring to the unrefined gems used by warlords and dictators to fund conflicts and power struggles, but the appeal of these 'dirty little stones', which have drawn both celebrities and cinema into their orbit, extends far beyond their value. The term fascinates, above all, for its linkage of high glamour and celebrity to the abject violence of war in the developing world; a dustily gleaming rejoinder to the idea of violence as separate from luxury, and the Western from the developing world.

In referring to blood bricks, we seek to capture this objectified sense of geopolitical injustice, but also to extend it beyond the luxurious and the unusual to the mundane and the everyday. We therefore use 'blood bricks' as a neologism to capture the overlapping and compounding vulnerabilities of environmental fragility and the precarious bodies and livelihoods of labourers in the industry's brick-kilns and aim, in doing so, to show that something as simple as a brick can tell a complex, but highly specific, story about exploitation. Blood bricks are less iconic than blood diamonds yet, for this very reason, their significance should not be underestimated. This is especially important in Cambodia where the stain of 'Blood Sugar' also takes it toll in the form of land grabs, crops razed, animals shot, and homes burned to the ground. 

Image: Sugar plantation of Srei Ambel, Koh Kong - Cambodia. 16 Jan. 2013 © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

Image: Sugar plantation of Srei Ambel, Koh Kong - Cambodia. 16 Jan. 2013 © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

Rather than linking large scale conflicts to small scale items, our geopolitical lens adopts an alternative approach, using these highly prevalent items to demonstrate how intertwined exploitation is with everyday life and work. Moreover, by focusing on modern slavery, we explore the everyday mechanics of exploitation in its most extreme manifestations,  bringing into sharp focus target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to seek 'effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking' (UNDP, 2016). In particular, this approach emphasizes the need to cast the net of investigation broadly and deeply, using the smallest cases to explore the phenomenon of modern slavery holistically, without relying on large scale, high visibility, or high value themes.

Indeed, while modern slavery has been highly publicised in the building of mega-sporting events, from Qatar to Brazil, labour exploitation is a much wider problem, embedded and integral to the way significant portions of the construction industry operates. This is especially so in Cambodia where the construction industry is now the second most important growth driver after the garment sector (World Bank, 2014).

Image: Construction work in Phnom Penh © Thomas Cristofoletti

Image: Construction work in Phnom Penh © Thomas Cristofoletti

The sites upon which – and in support of which – the Kingdom’s workers toil may not capture the imagination in the same way as an impending World Cup, but their influence has been no less consuming for a nation transformed by money, modernity and movement. Since the mid-1990s, when a boom in foreign investment began to fuel Cambodia’s economic transformation of the next two decades, a parallel physical transformation has reshaped its physical appearance. From one of the world’s ‘fourth world’ cities (Shatkin, 1998: 378), Phnom Penh has become a city of skyscrapers and multi-nationals, and cranes.

Moreover, that other parts of the country lag far behind the fast paced change seen in the capital indicates not exemption, but subservience to this process. In a country dominated by its primate city, resources – human physical and natural – flow through the capital and into the global economy. It is an iniquitous structure that leaves its mark on lives and bodies, yet which can be read with greatest clarity through the passages and functions of materials. The more common the material, we argue, the greater attention must be paid to its global provenance and none signifies the everyday changes and upheavals than that most ubiquitous building block of development: the brick.

Moulded from rural clays by a low paid and exploited workforce, to feed an internationally engendered appetite for physical infrastructure, Cambodian bricks are a microcosm of embodied, global, inequality. From the transnational capital flows that foster the demand for them, to the ecological and economic forces that bring workers to the kilns that make them, these mundane objects provide a powerful lens to train on exploitation. Above all, though, they make a point that blood diamonds could not: injustice is no rarity; no conspicuous addition to the normal order, but is embedded in the structure of world systems. If blood diamonds link violence to glamour, blood bricks ground it in the everyday.


Shatkin, G. (1998). ‘Fourth World’ cities in the global economy: the case of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research22(3), 378-393.

United Nations Development Program [UNDP] (2016). Sustainable Development Goals

World Bank (2014). Clear Skies: Cambodia Economic Update. Phnom Penh: World Bank Press.