The Modern Slavery-Climate Change Nexus

By Bethany Jackson (University of Nottingham)

Modern Slavery, Environmental Destruction, and Climate Change: A Scoping Workshop

6th June 2018 Royal Holloway University

A partnership between the Blood Bricks Project and the Rights Lab


The links between environmental destruction and contemporary slavery are beginning to be explored within a number of disciplines. Anti-slavery researchers have begun to identify the connections between the two (Bales, 2016) but further developments are needed in order to fully determine how entwined the two are with one another, and how this is also linked to climate change and the additional impacts which this threat may cause. In an effort to begin to establish the links between these factors the ‘Blood Bricks’ project being run by Royal Holloway in collaboration with the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, ran a scoping workshop looking specifically at the nexus between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change. The day was structured into three themes; measuring, industries and emerging agendas.

The day began with an introduction to the concept of modern slavery and its emerging link to environmental destruction by Professor of Contemporary Slavery Kevin Bales (University of Nottingham). This presentation built upon the work that was developed in his 2016 book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World, exploring the environmental degradation caused by the extensive brick manufacturing industry and referring to his personal experiences of visiting the workers who are found within these sites (see Disposable People). The introduction left me with some considerable thinking points that I carried throughout the rest of the day:

  • How can we measure the environmental destruction that is taking place around the world and calculate the rate that is caused by contemporary forms of slavery?
  • Where is slavery causing the most environmental damage, and in which industries?
  • How can we help to prevent this environmental destruction and support the relevant associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Not all of my questions were answered in full but it definitely gave me something to explore in my own research going forward.


Professor Kevin Bales (Rights Lab, University of Nottingham) presenting on his experience of the slavery-environment nexus.

Conceptualisation, Defining and Measuring

The first session was the most relevant to me personally as this is where my own work has been focused so far – in the defining and measuring of the extent of modern slavery within South Asian industry – and so it was very interesting to hear about the work others are doing within the same field and yet using significantly differing methodologies.

Doreen Boyd (University of Nottingham) explored the connection between slavery and environmental indicators using well sourced databases as well as presenting work on the brick manufacturing industry of South Asian ‘Brick Belt’ (Boyd et al. 2018). Her work also connected with an extensive literature review that has been conducted by the Rights Lab and Royal Holloway on the connections between slavery, environmental damage and climate change. For example, it was first noted by Bales that the scale of the environmental damage caused by slavery is impacting on climate change, with the total output of carbon dioxide from slavery practices measuring the third highest levels in the world behind China and the United States.This modern slavery-environmental degradation nexus is an interesting concept. The way in which the connections had been explored within this desk-based literature review (which I look forward to reading once it is published) made me consider the ways in which modern slavery and ecosystem services are interconnected, something which I am exploring in a current research project, and how I can represent this in a way that is accessible to both the fields of ecology and anti-slavery.  Both research projects were assessing the connections of slavery and the environment using novel methodologies such as remote sensing, and in-depth analysis of literature material.

You can find out more about the work being conducted at the University of Nottingham as part of the Rights Lab here! The research mentioned above contributes to two of the projects there, the Slavery Observatory (which you can read a former post on here) and Antislavery Ecosystems project.

In comparison was the qualitative analysis by Ayushman Bhagat (Durham University), who explored the connections between natural disasters and the anti-trafficking interventions that take place right after these serious events occur. This was a completely different aspect of measuring slavery and vulnerability to slavery to the work that I myself complete, which is intertwined with the work mentioned previously. Interestingly, he raised the fact that trafficking occurs at all times, but the rate increases after a disaster and this is the time when measures of detection and prevention take place.

Perhaps the most important point that I took from this research is how vital all forms of measurement are, whether that be qualitative interview techniques, scientific analysis of satellite imagery, or an extensive meta-analysis of the literature, all methods of study are valid when applied to slavery and the environment. The more methods that are used, the more accurate the conceptualisation, defining and measuring is likely to be.

Modern Slavery in Forests, Fisheries, and Factory

The slavery-environmental nexus that was explored by David Brown (University of Nottingham) in the first session, helped to provided much needed context for the ideas that were explored in the second session of the day. After lunch we began to explore slavery within three key industries that were identified in the literature: forests, fisheries and factories. For me the fisheries and factories were the most relevant topics that were explored.

Jess Sparks presented work from her PhD which assessed slavery in marine ecosystems from a social-ecological justice perspective. Her research is particularly interesting from an interdisciplinary perspective as she managed to combine human perspectives, modelling and a biological concept to map the complex system dynamics to consider whether fish stock declines could be contributing to increases in the vulnerability/number of enslaved people. What was a clear result of this research is the need to fully understand the interconnected nature of human extraction of nature for survival and development, and the protection of the ecosystem. Additionally, the connections between relevant SDGs were also becoming clear. Ecosystem services could be a way to demonstrate to the masses the importance of understanding the slavery-environmental nexus and this study in particular shows how this may be applied to the fisheries sector more generally. As with lots of studies that were presented throughout this workshop the main goal was to provide evidence to support the emergence of environmental policy contributions to end forced labour slavery and limit destruction of nature.

The Blood Bricks Project also spoke about the connection between slavery and climate change with special reference to the brick kilns of Cambodia, which is one of the countries most at risk from the effects of climate change. Laurie Parsons (Royal Holloway) provided a detailed description of the brick manufacturing industry of Cambodia – referencing the methods in which the workers are held in slavery, the methods of operation within the kilns, and how this industry is linked to climate change. In terms of my own research, learning more about the brick kiln industry in Cambodia was really interesting. As my own work looks at the brick manufacturing industry in the South Asia ‘Brick Belt’ I found that the two industries were actually completely different even though they suffer from the same issue of modern slavery. The bricks, methods of enslavement, types of kilns and levels of mechanisation are worlds apart despite having the same principles of production and being geographically located within the same continent. The work of the Blood Bricks project really opened by eyes as to the possible environmental destruction that is occurring in the kilns within South Asia and it is my intention to explore their connection to climate change and environmental damage. I think in the future it would be very interesting to compare the two industries and I look forward to reading the outputs of this extremely interesting project happening at Royal Holloway.

If you want to find out more about the Blood Bricks project you can read about it here!

Modern Slavery and Current and Emerging Trends

In the final session of the day we were asked to think about looking forward by contemplating the role of consumers and supply chains. Andreas Chatzidakis (Royal Holloway) and Deirdre Shaw (University of Glasgow) – who work with Michal Carrington (University of Melbourne) who was unable to attend the workshop – presented their work and I took three key findings from their presentation on modern day slavery from a consumers perspective, these included: a) the understanding of modern slavery – where there was confusion regarding the definition, b) the links to the environment and the effects that consumer actions may cause to alter these outcomes, and c) a concern for vulnerable and dependent people, and concern for animals. The first is something commonly found in the anti-slavery discourse and is one that is yet to be solved, the alteration of consumer habits and concern for vulnerable people and animals I believe are interconnected and can be influenced by the actions consumers take in order to become more responsible. As shown with the wave of awareness and the push for the reduction of single-use plastics since the broadcast of Blue Planet 2, increasing the awareness of modern slavery, its impacts upon the lives of people, the warning signs to look out for and the possible connections to the supply chain could help to eradicate slavery and lead to more support for the negative social, economic and environmental impacts that it causes. However, the main take home point from Andreas and Deidre’s presentation was that although consumers were aware of modern slavery, and they want and like some responsibilities, this consumer awareness very rarely leads to instances of consumer action – but maybe this is something that we need to change.

The final talk of the day came from a completely different perspective, outside of academia. Steve Trent from the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Environmental Justice Foundation. EJF inhabits the space between human rights and environmental abuses, thus this was a great way to both draw together the connection between modern slavery and environmental destruction that had been explored in many areas and industries using differing methodologies, but also apply this to very practical and on-the-ground experiences. Environmental Justice Foundation are always looking to deliver impact to help a very specific problem rather than make a huge amount of noise about themselves. Steve raised several important points when referencing the work that they do, providing the specific example of over-fishing, environmental abuse and slavery in the Thai fishing sector (the video he showed to demonstrate this issue is embedded below) – that we need to think about the products we buy as consumers, we need to question why these products are so cheap (the boats are only economically viable through the use of forced labour), and think about what these practices are doing to our environment. This is not just an issue within the fisheries sector, although it is one of the most talked about on a global scale. Perhaps the most important message that I really took home with me from this session was that when we think about slavery we need to think about how it is facilitated by corruption? For me this is not only the very obvious methods of corruption such as bribery of officials, but also out moral and ethical corruption where we have become more aware of the issue of environmental damage and slavery and yet what are we as consumers doing to help alleviate these burdens.

You can find out more about the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the incredible work that they conduct here!

Overall the workshop on the ‘Modern Slavery, Environmental Destruction, Climate Change Nexus’ was incredibly valuable, showcasing the current methodologies in use, the variety of industries which are currently being studied and the practical application being made to liberate slaves and limit the environmental destruction that the practices cause. There has been a clear expansion in the literature regarding modern slavery but this has not quite reached the slavery-environmental nexus. It was therefore very encouraging meeting new people who are exploring similar issues to myself and sharing stories, ideas, literature, methodologies and connections that have been found and how we can put these into practices across a number of industries to help widen the scope of both environmentalists and abolitionists to see that their fights can be one and the same. This connection can no longer be ignored and it is great to see how this fledgling field is developing and I feel privileged to be a part of that.


Bales, K. (1999). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press, Berkeley CA.

Bales, K. (2016). Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World. Spiegel & Grau, New York.

Boyd, D.S., Jackson, B., Wardlaw, J., Foody, G.M., Marsh, S. and Bales, K. (2018). Slavery from Space: Demonstrating the role for satellite remote sensing to inform evidence-based action related to UN SDG number 8. ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, 142, 380-388.

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