A coal worker in India. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/SANJIB DUTTA
A coal worker in India. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/SANJIB DUTTA

London — Researchers in England are hoping to help root out slavery in northern India by using detailed satellite imagery to locate brick kilns — sites that are notorious for using millions of slaves, including children.

A team of geospatial experts at the University of Nottingham use Google Maps and dozens of volunteers to identify potential sites of exploitation and report them to authorities.

"The key thing … is to get those statistics right and to get the locations of the brick kilns sorted," said Doreen Boyd, researcher on the Slavery from Space project.

"There are certainly activists on the ground that will help us in terms of getting the statistics and the locations of these brick kilns to [government] officials."

Antislavery activists said the project could be useful in identifying remote kilns or mines that would otherwise escape public or official scrutiny. "But there are other, more pressing challenges such as tackling problematic practices including withheld wages, lack of transparent accounting … no enforcement of existing labour laws," said Jakub Sobik, spokesman at Anti-Slavery, a nongovernmental organisation in London.

Millions of people in India are believed to be living in slavery. Despite a 1976 ban on bonded labour, the practice remains widespread at brick kilns, rice mills and brothels. Most victims belong to low-income families or marginalised castes such as the Dalits, or "untouchables".

Nearly 70% of brick kiln workers in southern Asia are estimated to be working in bonded and forced labour, according to a 2016 report by the International Labour Organisation. About a fifth are under age.

The project relies on "citizen science" or "crowdsourcing", a process in which volunteers sift through thousands of satellite images to identify possible locations of kilns. Each image is shown to multiple volunteers who mark kilns independently.

The team is focused on a 2,600km² area in the desert state of Rajasthan — teeming with brick-making sites — and plans to scale up the project.

Researchers are in talks with satellite companies to get access to more detailed images, rather than having to rely on publicly available Google Maps.


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