Researching the modern slavery-climate change nexus in the Cambodian construction industry


Blood bricks embody the converging traumas of modern slavery and climate change in our urban age.

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 supplying them. This industry relies upon a multigenerational workforce of adults and children trapped in debt bondage – one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in the world. Tens of thousands of debt-bonded families in Cambodia extract, mould, and fire clay in hazardous conditions to meet Phnom Penh’s insatiable appetite for bricks.

Blood bricks raise the question, who is the city built for? And whose lives are being sacrificed in the long shadows of its peaks and penthouses?

Our research on blood bricks reveals more than just the vertical aspirations of a business elite built on modern slavery; rather it also foregrounds stories of climate change. 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.

Moving from the city, to the brick kiln, and finally back to the rural villages once called home, our study 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. In trying to repay loans taken on to cope with the destructive impacts of climate change on agrarian production, families from rural villages across Cambodia are forced to leave their homes to live and work in brick kilns from which they may never escape. Kiln owners repay farmers’ debts and offer a consolidated loan. In return, farmers and their families are compelled to enter into debt bondage with the kiln owner until the loan is repaid, if ever.

Our research also highlights how climate change continues to impact upon workers’ lives through unseasonal rain that halts brick production and deepens levels of debt. The excavation of clay for bricks, and the emission of noxious gases into the atmosphere through the burning of pre-consumer garment waste in the kiln, also contributes to the dynamic relationship between modern slavery, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Our original research newly evidences connections between issues that are too often considered separate from each other in policy and planning debates. The aim is to go beyond these siloes. Cambodian brick kilns and their supply chains show the need for joined-up approaches to tackle these interconnected challenges within and beyond Cambodian borders.

The research (2017-2019) is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development (ESRC-DFID) Development Frontiers Research Fund.

The project has now formerly ended but we are continuing to publish our research and pursue its impact. We will continue to update this website.

All photographs on this website are the original work of Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom.  Copyright©2018 Royal Holloway, University of London