The publication of the new ILO report “Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour” is significant because it takes our understanding of trafficking, forced labour and slavery to a new level.
The report builds on earlier ILO studies on the extent, the cost and profits from forced labour and human trafficking.
But this report is different: it looks at both the supply and the demand side of forced labour, and for the first time provides solid evidence for a correlation between forced labour and poverty.
What is more, it provides startling new estimates of the illegal profits generated through the use of forced labour in various economic sectors and industries, and in commercial sexual exploitation.
These new estimates show that progress is being made. State-imposed forced labour is declining in importance. Of course, we must remain vigilant to prevent that type of exploitation from resurging.
But we must also now turn our attention to understanding what continues to drive forced labour and trafficking in the private sector.
In order to move forward in this fight, we need to look at the socio-economic factors that make people vulnerable to forced labour.
We need to understand the role of supply and demand, and how some unscrupulous employers can still reap huge profits by underpaying, or not paying workers at all.
We need to strengthen social protection floors to prevent households from sliding into the poverty that pushes people into forced labour.
We need to improve levels of education and literacy so that household decision-makers can understand their own vulnerability to forced labour and know their rights as workers.
We need to address the fact that more than half of all of the victims are women and girls, primarily in commercial sexual exploitation, and we need to reduce the vulnerability of men and boys as well to forced labour in other sectors.
And finally, we need to examine how the movement of people either within or across international borders contributes to forced labour and build and consolidate a rights-based approach to migration.
There are a number of other steps we can take to strengthen our efforts. Obtaining standardized data is one of them. And in this context, I want to commend the countries involved in surveys that form the basis of this report. And equally I commend the International Conference of Labour Statisticians for urging the establishment of a working group of statisticians, economists and other experts to collect data in this area, and that’s what we intend to do.
But statistics alone won’t get the job done. If we want to make a significant change in the lives of the 21 million men, women and children who are still in forced labour, we need to take concrete and immediate action.
Firstly, we need to work with governments to strengthen law, policy and enforcement.
Second, we must work with employers to strengthen their due diligence against forced labour in their own activities—including their supply chains—that creates an environment of unfair competition. And third, we need to work with trade unions to represent and to empower those who are at risk.
The continued existence of forced labour is bad for its victims, for business and for development. It is a practice that has no place in modern society. And it’s time that we act together, to eradicate this hugely profitable, but fundamentally evil source of shame once and for all.