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.
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).
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 Research, 22(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.