Recent ILO research indicates that forced labour affects at least 1.3 million people in Latin America. In-depth field research in the rural areas of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, has confirmed earlier perceptions that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to a form of forced labour called debt bondage. Indigenous workers are recruited by labour intermediaries who – through wage advances and other manipulations - induce them into an artificial debt that they cannot repay. Long hours of work are not sufficient to repay this debt, thus trapping the workers into greater debt and a longer debt repayment period. This system perpetuates the poverty or extreme poverty of the workers. Such practices have been documented by the ILO in the Amazon region of Peru for illegal logging, in Bolivia for nut collection, in cattle farms and sugar plantations, and in Paraguay’s traditional cattle farms of the Chaco region. Because many victims are internal migrant workers, this practice represents also a form of trafficking of people for the purpose of labour exploitation.
As a result of intensive ILO engagement over the last two years, the governments of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru have all recognized the existence of forced labour. The technical programmes of the ILO in these countries started with in-depth field studies to investigate the mechanisms of debt bondage and to formulate recommendations. These studies were discussed in a series of workshops with governments, and with workers’ and employers’ organisations, which provided an opportunity for initial awareness raising and resulted in a number of important developments. Both Bolivia and Peru have created national commissions in order to devise effective national action plans against forced labour, while Paraguay has announced that it will open an office of the Ministry of Labour in the Chaco to increase inspections. In Bolivia, regional offices of the Ministry of Labour have also formally committed themselves to step up their action against forced labour. All three countries have explicitly requested further technical cooperation with the ILO. Such cooperation will benefit from ILO experience accumulated in a number of other countries, and especially in Brazil where an ILO project against “slave labour” is ongoing since 2002.
National workers’ and employers’ organizations in all three countries strongly support this initiative. Employers, including associations representing various agricultural sectors, view the elimination of forced labour as contributing to overall development and welfare, as well as enhancing the image and productivity of the respective sectors. Workers’ organizations, which have already reached out to indigenous and agricultural workers and seek to organize them, are keen to become involved in order to strengthen and expand those efforts.
Initial cooperation on forced labour also provides an important opportunity for scaling up cooperation on the larger issue of discrimination against indigenous people in the labour market. While forced labour is an extreme manifestation of such discrimination, a more widespread concern is the lower returns to education for indigenous people than for other groups. This holds particularly true for indigenous women. Disparities in earnings between indigenous and non-indigenous workers are high and statistical evidence shows that, even after controlling for ethnic differences in human and physical assets, the gap remains huge. Thus, it is clear that indigenous people are at the bottom of the occupational ladder: they are engaged in low-pay, irregular and unprotected employment, and they are subject to discrimination in remuneration. Discrimination in the labour market explains, at least in part, why the incidence of poverty is particularly high among indigenous people and why they are disproportionately represented among the poor. In Bolivia, for instance, more than half of the population is poor, but almost three quarters of the indigenous population are poor. Discrimination and poverty explain why indigenous workers are vulnerable to falling into debt bondage
The present project seeks to promote an integrated approach to the fight against forced labour and discrimination, connecting anti-forced labour initiatives with broader social policies aimed at combating ethnic discrimination and promoting ethnic justice in the world of work. It will build upon and strengthen the commitment of workers’ and employers’ organizations to collaborate with the target groups and beneficiaries, with particular reference to strengthening their organizations and enhancing participation in national consultative and negotiation processes. As such, the project will also connect the eradication of forced labour with the implementation of indigenous rights as specified in the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convnetion, 1989 (No. 169), the most up-to-date international binding instrument on the subject, which has been ratified by all three countries and which specifies that indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy “the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In Bolivia, the project will also relate to the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which clearly identifies discrimination as a structural cause of indigenous peoples’ poverty.