Message by ILO's Director-General on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery 2012

Statement | Geneva | 02 December 2012

This observance reminds us that the struggle against slavery in its modern forms continues. These practices defy the principle that “labour is not a commodity” as affirmed by the international community in the ILO’s Constitution. On this occasion we make a call for action to enable all women and men to enjoy decent work - productive employment in conditions of freedom and equity, security and dignity.

According to our most recent estimates, today about 21 million men, women and children are toiling in various forms of forced labour. Most are suffering at the hands of unscrupulous private individuals operating outside the law. Billions of dollars in profits annually are made at the expense of the most vulnerable and to the detriment of legitimate businesses. It must stop. The human cost of inaction is great: it affects child domestic workers subjected to violence behind closed doors, workers especially women workers in sweatshops, workers on construction sites, in agriculture and other sectors are intimidated and abused, as well as girls and women forced into prostitution.

The current economic crisis heightens vulnerability. As conditions deteriorate, without minimal levels of social protection, many become the easy prey of those who hold out the promise of opportunities for work and income. Millions are also trapped by poverty and practices that have persisted for generations.

The situation can be changed, including through the following action.

First, an appropriate legal framework must be in place that gives effect to the rights of women and men to be free from forced labour practices, children to be free from child labour and workers must enjoy respect for all fundamental principles and rights at work. Encouragingly, in recent years many countries have adopted new laws and policies in line with international standards, including the ILO’s Forced Labour Conventions Nos. 29 and 105 but much more effective implementation at national level is required.

Secondly, businesses need to be vigilant and do their part in ensuring that supply chains are free from production that sustains modern forms of slavery. Workers’ organizations must be powerful advocates bringing forced labour practices into the light and supporting action in the informal economy that enables all workers to enjoy the rights to which they are entitled.

Thirdly, barriers to cooperation nationally and internationally must be overcome to permit coordinated and mutually reinforcing action by different actors – for example, enabling labour inspectors to join forces with other enforcement agencies and governments acting effectively across national frontiers to protect workers, wherever they are, from forced labour.

Fourthly, since poverty is a major factor in the perpetuation of forced labour, ending modern day slavery requires coherent policies for inclusive growth centred on jobs and income and targeting the establishment of nationally defined social protection floors.

The ILO has been at the forefront of the struggle against slavery and forced labour for nearly 100 years. On this occasion, we reaffirm our commitment with the launch of our campaign “End Slavery Now!” Together let us give renewed impetus to the struggle. The crimes against the vulnerable must be targeted as must the protection and the means for empowerment that will put women and men everywhere on course to working and living in dignity.