The United States first began to photograph the Earth from space between 1950-60 during the cold war. Those first surveillance satellites were strictly for ‘national security’, but within 30 years commercial firms were offering similar services for all sorts of uses. One area of potential, explored by Amnesty International in the late 1990s, was to use satellite imagery to identify human rights abuses.
It is a method of investigation that continues to hold promise in some contexts, but despite the intervening years the practice is still very much in its infancy. While satellite imagery can show the visible traces of large-scale aerial bombardment, fire, or killing with some credibility, it cannot detect violence and exploitation taking place in closed or semi-closed spaces like homes or workplaces. The ‘slavery from space’ project, developed by the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, overlooks this rather basic limitation.
‘Slavery from space’ seeks to use satellite images to identify brick kilns in South Asia and, by extension, estimate the number of ‘slaves’ living in the region. It further aims to study the impact of kiln-based slavery on climate change, stating that “the closely related nature of these two global problems suggests that they could well be addressed simultaneously rather than separately.”
Starting in mid-2017, the project’s researchers began to analyse Google Earth images of the ‘brick belt’ in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Their goal was to locate large oval kilns that, they assumed, were most likely to use enslaved people “due to their sheer size”. After completing this task for a random selection of images they used sampling techniques to estimate the number of brick kilns in the entire region, and then sought to verify their findings by inviting volunteers crowdsourced from the Zoouniverse platform to comb through and mark up images as well. The second phase of the project saw the same approach applied to the Punjab region of India, except that this time a different crowdsourcing platform (Tomnod) and satellite image provider (Digital Globe) were used. Also, the focus now was on locating chimneys that form part of the brick kilns.
Leaving aside methodological questions about the use of random sampling, the use of crowdsourcing platforms to support findings, and the switch in focus for different phases of the project, there is a more fundamental problem here. How does the identification of brick kilns help us to measure slavery?
Why do India’s brick makers keep making bricks?
It is true that brick kilns can be sites of exploitation and even violence, but to equate this with slavery is a counterproductive oversimplification. It implies a simple problem – that people are being forced to make bricks against their will – and thus a simple fix: find the kilns, free the slaves. But the many forms of social, political, and economic exclusion and exploitation that compel people to seek work in the kilns are structural, and they are not so easily escaped.
The lives and working conditions of kiln workers are not as uniform as one might assume. The brick industry is seasonal, operating for around six to eight months a year. A labourer will thus usually work in multiple jobs for multiple employers over the course of a year. Many kiln labourers have also migrated to work from poorer regions, and the labour recruitment, wages, and working conditions that they experience vary substantially. This makes generalisations difficult. Individual kiln workers experience very different types and levels of labour rights violations, gender discrimination, caste-based discrimination and social exclusion.
Painting over all this variation with the slavery brush makes it difficult to see the more specific problems faced by brick kiln labourers, such as non-payment or under-payment of minimum wages, non-enforcement of safety and health regulations at brick kiln sites, employment of children in hazardous conditions, unsafe migration, coercive recruitment strategies, informal debt, and non-compliance with existing labour laws. These are entrenched issues in India that go way beyond large brick kilns. They also do not all have the same solution. To ignore these facts is worrying.
Is it helpful to relabel exploitative work as slavery?
There is no denying that poverty and indebtedness, the complicated relationship between migration and low socio-economic status, the lack of control over working conditions, and the absence of statutory collective bargaining rights are difficult realities faced by labourers in the informal sector in India and across the world. However, labelling their situation ‘slavery’ is unlikely to help such workers collectively organise to resist and transform labour abuse, or to promote political action to address the structural conditions that make such abuse possible. It is also unlikely to challenge the state’s apathy with regard to extending and enforcing existing labour laws and ensuring decent work for all.
Instead, talk of ‘slavery’ takes brick kiln labourers outside the realm of work and employment altogether. It turns them into victims and shifts recourse into the realm of criminal law, an approach that has time and again proven ineffective. It also encourages actions and policies like rescue and forced rehabilitation. This is an approach frequently applied in relation to sex workers, and one which has been widely criticised for its psychological, emotional and physical impact on ‘rescued people’, its failure to provide viable livelihood alternatives, and its non-consideration of agency.
Through its use of satellite technology and complicated jargon and algorithms, the ‘slavery from space’ project creates an illusion of authority for a project that suffers from serious flaws. And in inviting us to fight a phantom of slavery, it distracts attention from the structural realities that make poor, precarious, and hazardous work into the best or only survival option open to certain groups of people. Instead of spending time and money spotting ‘slavery’ from space, we need to support and learn from the struggles and innovative strategies of informal workers’ movements in India and other global south contexts. We need to consider these strategies in the understanding, design and enforcement of policy and law on labour rights protection, reducing the legal and social gap between rights-in-principle and rights-in-practice.