Forced and compulsory labour in international human rights law

This paper takes a historical approach examining how the understanding of the scope of slavery and forced and compulsory labour, as well as other forms of compelled labour, has evolved.

The prohibition of slavery, forced labour, institutions and practices similar to slavery and trafficking in persons are enshrined in international law, however debates about the relationship between these concepts – and how they should be translated into domestic law – have at times led to confusion about how best to tackle the enormous challenges posed by contemporary forms of forced labour or what is often called “modern forms of slavery”.

Focusing in particular on the supervisory and monitoring mechanisms of the ILO and the UN, respectively, Lee Swepston shows how the legal concepts of slavery and forced and compulsory labour have converged over time. He concludes that at the national level, legal imprecision should be avoided to ensure that national legal prohibitions are clear and effective, and that action against compelled labour takes into account its different forms.

This Working Paper was commissioned by SAP-FL in the context of ILO’s recent standard setting process on forced labour. In March 2013, the Governing Body placed a standard-setting item on the agenda of the 103rd Session (2014) of the ILC, with a view to supplementing the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and emphasizing prevention, protection and compensation measures. In June 2014, the ILC adopted a new legally binding Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, supported by a Recommendation on Supplementary Measures for the Effective Suppression of Forced Labour (No. 203), to strengthen global efforts to eliminate forced labour. The new instruments bring the ILO’s standards against forced labour into the twenty-first century to address effectively all forms of modern-day forced labour, including human trafficking. They complement existing international standards and aim to achieve greater policy coherence at national, regional and global levels.