New ILO Report: A global alliance against forced labour

Is forced labour a thing of the past? A major new ILO study, A global alliance against forced labour, reveals that not only is it a present-day issue, but it is also one of the most hidden problems of our era. The ILO estimates that 12.3 million people worldwide, half of them children, are trapped in forced labour. The study challenges conventional views about the issue and serves as a worldwide call to action against forced labour.

It's an older indigenous man in Peru doing back-breaking work on an isolated farm in the jungle, forced to buy basic necessities from a company store at highly inflated prices, and compensated for months of work with a pair of boots.

And it's a 14-year old girl in Uganda, snatched away from her home by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and made to act as 'wife' to an LRA commander.

These are just three of the 12.3 million people worldwide who are trapped in states of slave-like work, part of a grim picture painted by a major new study by the International Labour Office (ILO).

Titled A global alliance against forced labour ( Note 1), the study describes a global economy so hooked on low wages that it violates the basic rights of millions of people, relegating them to slavery, serfdom, and debt bondage as cold and cruel as any chains. And of those millions, as many as half are children.

The ILO report follows the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work where employer, government, and worker organizations expressed their intent to respect human values.

Many people think forced labour involves toiling for long hours under harsh conditions for little pay. Beyond that, however, two conditions must apply: the work must be undertaken involuntarily, and the work must be exacted under threat of penalty. Often this threat manifests itself in the form of beatings, torture, or sexual assault, but it can also be the withholding of identity documents or threats of deportation.

Forced labour is ubiquitous. While concentrated in agriculture, construction, domestic work, brick-making, sweatshop manufacturing, and the sex trade, it occurs on every continent, in every economy, and in nearly every country. Yet, paradoxically, it is "the most hidden problem of our times".

Human trafficking is probably the most high-profile aspect related to forced labour. But the ILO study estimates that it accounts for only one-fifth of all forced labour. Trafficking - the recruitment and transportation of people for economic exploitation - varies greatly from place to place. In brief, the numbers show that the vast majority of trafficked labourers work in transition and industrial countries. Almost half are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. Almost all of these are women and children. From such misery, however, comes great profit. It is estimated that work performed by trafficked individuals generates US$32 billion every year.

At its core, the report challenges several conventional views about the nature of forced labour, how it operates, and how best to abolish it. The report focuses intently on development issues such as poverty reduction. Many argue that poverty is the root cause of coercive labour measures, and that only by eliminating poverty can we eliminate forced labour. But this contention ignores the fact that in many cases, forced labour actually creates and perpetuates poverty. Although the poorest and least-valued members of society are most often the ones compelled to work, their 'jobs' rarely provide any escape from their predicament. More likely the work they do - often mentally tedious, emotionally humiliating, and physically exhausting - sentences them to a treadmill of never-ending deprivation.

In South Asia, for example, people from lower castes and indigenous tribes are shut out from legitimate work and so enter into bonded labour arrangements believing it may provide some relief from acute poverty. But when they are induced into debt and then are paid so little, if anything, they can never repay their debts no matter how hard they work or for how long. Debts are then passed on from one family member to another and from one generation to the next, condemning children and grandchildren to lives of continual scarcity.

Women in these situations are particularly vulnerable to ruthless employers. A form of coerced prostitution in Bangladesh and India, for instance, burdens a young prostitute with a 'debt' to the brothel owner for food, clothes, make-up, and living expenses. To pay this supposed debt, she must work without pay for one year or longer.

Another way of imposing workers with debt is by pay advances. In the coal mines of Balochistan in Pakistan, for example, miners take substantial advances which are expected to be repaid from monthly wages. These advances mount ever higher through the miners' purchases of subsistence goods and in some cases through employers who 'cook the books'. The miners' mounting bills result in lengthy debt bondage. Miners who try to leave are often threatened with and in some cases punished by physical violence.

This form of exploitation is not restricted to developing countries or to traditional servile arrangements. New forms of insolvency are appearing in industrial nations and in quite mainstream economic sectors. Dishonest practices by recruitment agencies coupled with fees imposed by multiple subcontractors result in excessive costs, which drive legally recruited migrants into debt bondage.

Arguably, the report's most disturbing finding concerns the links between forced labour and globalization. In a climate of market deregulation and ever more open trading agreements, many argue that an empowered and enlarged private sector will discourage forced labour. It is the rising-tide-raises-all-boats argument. But the ILO report finds that private agents, not governments or the military, are the ones who inflict the vast majority of forced labour.

The first Global Report on forced labour released in 2001 described human trafficking as "the underside of globalization". The new report goes further, revealing how aspects of globalization actually promote forced labour in multiple environments.

Yet must the maltreatment of human beings be an inevitable outcome of a burgeoning global economy? Obviously, intense competitive pressures can force suppliers to cut costs by any measure and, in extreme cases, lead to forced labour. In fact, the ILO has documented instances where contractors accept such low fees per worker that it is impossible for them to comply with national labour laws. In many countries, this pressure to lower costs happens alongside two other troubling trends.

One is a surplus of migrant workers and their families. These people-without-a-country have less to gain - and more to lose - from reporting illegal work situations because of their fear of deportment.

The second is the ongoing deregulation of labour markets. Although the established economic view calls for a dismantling of labour laws in order to ensure smooth and flexible trading arrangements, loose rules or no rules have devastating social consequences. Unfettered markets can contribute to fewer labour inspection services and, at the same time, a proliferation of unregistered companies that operate beyond laws. The upshot is more forced labour. This widespread abuse of the most disadvantaged and least protected people in the world today is nothing less than a colossal failure of labour markets, institutions, and regulations.

Given this Dickensian England scenario, can forced labour ever be abolished? Yes, says the ILO. A global alliance against forced labour presents cases where a few select countries are confronting forced labour situations. They are doing so by adopting strong legislation and enforcement policies, by implementing development programmes that tackle root causes such as poverty, and by helping victims rebuild their lives.

But much, much more must be done. A global alliance against forced labour is the ILO's call to governments, employers' and workers' organizations, development agencies, international financial institutions concerned with poverty reduction, and civil society to form an action plan against forced labour in the next four years. Ordinary citizens have a critical role to play as well. From shoes to sugar, educated consumers want to know where their products come from and how they were made. The days when unsavory stations of the production chain could remain hidden from public view are numbered.

With political will and global commitment, forced labour could be eliminated over the next ten years, says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. There is no doubt it must.

Forced labour, Somavia continues, is "a social evil which has no place in the modern world".

Time will tell what century the world is really in.

Alicia Priest

Note 1 - A global alliance against forced labour, May 2005, International Labour Organization, Geneva.