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Questions and answers on forced labour

New figures published by the ILO estimate the total number of forced labourers across the world at nearly 21 million. This means that three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are in forced labour today. These new figures aim to inform better global policy responses to end the crime of modern forced labour.

Analysis | 01 June 2012

What is forced labour? Is it the same as trafficking and slavery?

According to the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention No. 29, forced or compulsory labour is all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. It can occur where work is forced upon people by State authorities, by private enterprises or by individuals. The concept of forced labour is quite broadly defined and thus covers a wide range of coercive labour practices, which occur in all types of economic activity and in all parts of the world.

The ILO has two Conventions on Forced Labour (No. 29 adopted in 1930 and No. 105 adopted in 1957). The first defines forced labour, and provides for certain exceptions, including compulsory military service, civic duties, work required to cope with an emergency situation, and prison labour under certain stipulated conditions. The second adds a specific obligation for States never to impose forced labour as a means of political coercion or education, punishment for expressing political views or participating in strikes, mobilising labour for economic development, labour discipline or for racial, social, national or religious discrimination.
 ILO Conventions


Both Conventions enjoy nearly universal ratification, meaning that almost all countries are legally obliged to respect their provisions and regularly report on them to the ILO’s standards supervisory bodies. Not being subject to forced labour is a fundamental human right: all ILO member States have to respect the principle of the elimination of forced labour regardless of ratification.

Human trafficking can also be regarded as forced labour, and so the ILO estimate captures virtually the full spectrum of human trafficking abuses or what some people call “modern-day slavery.” The only exceptions to this are cases of trafficking for organ removal, forced marriage or adoption, unless the latter practices result in forced labour.

Forced labour is different from sub-standard or exploitative working conditions. Various indicators can be used to ascertain when a situation amounts to forced labour, such as restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, withholding of wages or identity documents, physical or sexual violence, threats and intimidation or fraudulent debt from which workers cannot escape.

Forced labour can result from internal or cross-border movement which renders some workers particularly vulnerable to deceptive recruitment and coercive labour practices. It also affects people in their home areas, born or manipulated into a status of bondage or servitude.

Forced labour includes forced sexual services. In addition to being a serious violation of fundamental human rights, the exaction of forced labour is a criminal offence.

How many people are trapped in forced labour?


The ILO estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour at any point in time. This represents about three in every 1,000 of today’s world population. Of these, 90 per cent are exploited by private individuals and enterprises, while 10 per cent are forced to work by the state, by rebel military groups or in prisons under conditions which violate fundamental ILO standards. Forced sexual exploitation accounts for 22 per cent of all victims whereas forced labour exploitation makes up 68 per cent of the total.

The new ILO estimate shows how forced labour affects different groups of people: 55 per cent of all victims are women and girls, 45 per cent are men and boys. Children make up around one quarter of all victims.

The ILO further estimated how many people are trapped in forced labour as a result of internal or cross-border migration. Twenty-nine per cent of the victims ended up in forced labour after having moved across international borders, the majority of those being forced sex workers. Fifteen per cent became victims of forced labour following movement within their country, whereas the remaining 56 per cent did not leave their place of origin or residence.

The average length of time spent in forced labour varies, depending on the form and region. The ILO estimates that victims spend on average nearly 18 months in forced labour before being rescued or escaping their exploiters.

Which regions are most affected?

Forced labour affects in one way or another every country in the world; it is a truly global problem. Statistics on prevalence are highly significant since they indicate the level of risk that people face in different regions.

The region with the highest prevalence of forced labour (meaning the number of victims per thousand inhabitants) is central and south-eastern Europe (non-EU) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (4.2 per 1,000 inhabitants), followed by Africa (4 per 1,000 inhabitants), Middle East (3.4 per 1,000 inhabitants), Asia Pacific (3.3 per 1,000 inhabitants), Latin America and the Caribbean (3.1 per 1,000 inhabitants), Developed Economies and European Union (1.5 per 1,000 inhabitants).

The relatively high prevalence in central and south-eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States reflects the fact that the population is much lower than for example in Asia, while reports of trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation and of state-imposed forced labour in this region are numerous.

Asia has the highest absolute numbers, followed by Africa and Latin America and other regions. The fact that more than half of all forced labour victims are in Asia points to the need to intensify action against forced labour in this particular region.

Who are the victims? What makes them vulnerable to forced labour?

Forced labour affects all population groups, young and old, male and female. But some groups are more vulnerable than others. In the context of this new estimate, ILO collected more than 8,000 reported cases of forced labour which provide a wealth of information on the profile of victims and the causes of their vulnerability.

According to our new estimate, women and girls are slightly more at risk than men and boys, and they account for the vast majority of victims of forced sexual exploitation. Children account for a quarter of all victims. Nearly half of all victims have migrated within their country or across borders before ending up in forced labour, confirming that movement is an important vulnerability factor.

Victims are frequently drawn from minority or socially excluded groups, as is the case in many parts of South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many are migrant workers (usually but not always working with an irregular status) or poor seasonal workers, who move from rural to urban areas, or between distant regions or provinces, in search of work. Victims of state-imposed forced labour are mostly exploited by the military (or rebel groups), or in prisons or rehabilitation centres.

Which industries are making use of forced labour? What are the profits?

In 2005 and 2009, ILO estimated that annual profits are at least 32 billion US$ and that victims of forced labour forgo at least 21 billion US$ each year in unpaid wages and illegal recruitment fees.

A future priority of the ILO will be to study the economics of modern forced labour in greater depth. This will include an analysis of certain industries or economic sectors that seem to be more vulnerable to forced labour practices than others. It will also include research into the prevalence of forced labour in global supply chains. By the end of this year, we aim to produce a new study on the profits generated by forced labour. Based on an initial assessment of the data, we can already say that the sectors most frequently cited are agriculture, domestic work, construction and manufacturing.


How do you explain the big difference between the 2005 and 2012 estimates?

The 2012 estimate of forced labour is significantly higher than the ILO’s earlier 2005 estimate, which was 12.3 million victims.

The new estimate of 20.9 million is based on an improved methodological model, which takes into account the ILO’s own experience since 2005, the results from the first national surveys of forced labour, external feedback on the 2005 estimation procedure, as well as valuable advice on the new methodology given by a group of independent experts.

Given the significant differences in methodology, the two estimates cannot be compared in order to conclude that the number of victims has increased over the period. However, we have seen a significant improvement in reporting on forced labour and trafficking since the publication of our first global estimate. Thanks to this greater awareness and political mobilisation, we believe that forced labour victims now have a higher chance of being detected and reported, though this can vary considerably across regions.

The new figure represents a minimum estimate as we applied a strict criteria for data validation and extrapolation. We cannot say whether the significant increase in the global estimated number of victims is due primarily to our improved estimation method, to an increase in detection and reports of forced labour or to a real rise in the number of victims over the period. The chances are that it results from a combination of all three factors. We are confident that our new estimate is the most credible number available at this point in time.

Unfortunately, hard data on forced labour and trafficking, on the basis of which even better global estimates could be obtained, are still scarce as very few countries have attempted to develop national estimates. We still have a long way to go before we can produce data that is sufficiently robust to monitor trends at national, regional and global levels.

Why has the ILO produced new estimates on forced labour?

Data on the prevalence of forced labour is crucial in order to design evidence-based policies, to raise awareness about the severity of the problem and to mobilise urgent action to combat it.

In 2005, the ILO was the first international organization to produce global and regional estimates of forced labour. The 2005 figures were derived from the data available at the time, which were rather scarce for some countries. The estimate represented an order of magnitude, and a conservative one at that.

In recent years, the ILO and other organizations have invested considerable effort in improving data on forced labour. This has made it possible to now produce a more robust estimate, with a significantly lower margin of error than in 2005.

Tags: forced labour

Unit responsible: Programme for the Promotion of the Declaration

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