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Forced labour

From labour exploitation to forced labour: a fine line

Forced labour is a crime that requires severe punishment. But clear guidance is needed, to determine the often thin dividing line between labour exploitation and forced labour. Zambia is one of the African countries to have taken steps both to understand the problems through research and to instigate measures to combat them. The case illustrates some of the dilemmas.

Article | 11 May 2009

CHIPATA, Zambia (ILO Online) – Landilani is a 22 year old boy of a family of seven children, from Mushoro village in Chipata.

At the age of 19, his father arranged for Landilani to be employed by a businesswoman he knew in Chipata who would come to their village buying gemstones. When he got to Chipata, Landilani and the employer agreed on a salary of K150,000 per month.

He was accommodated at a restaurant where he had his meals. He further served as the guard at this restaurant. His duties included sweeping, cleaning, washing plates, watering flowers, and work at the farm.

Landilani worked for three months in Chipata without receiving his salary apart from an occasional K10,000 to buy clothes. He was enticed to leave this employment by the nephew of the employer and promised a job in Katete. Landilani started out by working at his new employer’s gemstone mine for two weeks before he was moved on to a night club where he worked for two years without receiving a salary.

When Landilani started to ask his employer for his money he was told to stop work as another person had been recruited in his place. Landilani was offered transport to the village. In the meantime, Landilani’s younger brother had been recruited by his first employer in Chipata to replace him there….

“This case shows how the vulnerability of a young man can be exploited – through false promises, systematically depriving him of his wages and keeping him in a job against his free will. But in other cases, the line between labour exploitation and forced labour is less clear cut”, says Roger Plant, head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour.

Under ILO Convention No.29 on Forced Labour, to qualify as a forced labourer, a worker must be unable to leave the job because of a menace of penalty and be doing a job against their free will.

According to the ILO’s new Global Report, The Cost of Coercion, “forced labourers typically work longer days and longer weeks than free workers, sometimes up to 16 hours a day for seven days a week. This overtime is not remunerated at a higher rate than regular working hours; at best forced labourers receive their usual hourly wage”.

In addition to the longer working hours, the “excessive work” sometimes includes the work of family members, including children, who contribute to the production of goods and services but receive no payment in return.

In early 2006, the Zambian Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS) approached the ILO for help in determining whether forced labour existed in Zambia. The MLSS was concerned especially about the operations of some “labour brokers” in the mining sector, who were accused of exploiting the jobseekers they placed by retaining a significant portion of their wages as a fee.

An analysis was undertaken of some 1,500 labour complaints recorded at the Ministry and the Human Rights Commission over a 5 year period, almost all from Zambian nationals. Complaints related mainly to unpaid wages and terminal benefits; threats of dismissal, or dismissal if the worker complained; deception as to the nature of the work; withholding of personal documentation; excessively low wages; transportation to a distant work site and non-repatriation; and very poor conditions of service. Some workers had not been paid for months on end and, in a few instances, several years.

Three sectors emerged in which workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to the informal nature of the work, or the use of intermediary labour contractors, namely: mining, domestic work and agriculture. Further field research sought to look into the interlinked issues of migration, trafficking and forced labour.

“The Government of Zambia has taken a lead in facing up to these issues which of course affect many countries in Africa and elsewhere”, explains Roger Plant. “We would encourage other countries to follow suit by looking into and addressing the factors which push poor women, men and children to take risks which might end in trafficking or forced labour. We must put an end to the impunity of their exploiters”.

To tackle the problems, the Government of Zambia has developed an anti-trafficking policy and new legislation, and set up an inter-agency committee on human trafficking. Services for victims of trafficking, such as shelters and counselling, are being set up. The MLSS is reviewing the legal and institutional provisions for the regulation of private employment agencies, and reinforcing its labour inspection services – a difficult task in a country the size of Zambia.

“Forced labour is the antithesis of decent work. By conveying its message clearly, demonstrating what can be done, and drawing the policy implications, the ILO can exercise global leadership on a human rights issue that is daily arousing more concern around the world”, concludes Roger Plant.