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