New ILO Approach to Combating Forced Labour Stresses Technical Cooperation

The ILO announces the formation of a new unit which will take concrete measures to combat forced and compulsory labour.

Press release | BANGKOK | 25 February 2002

BANGKOK (ILO News) :- The ILO has announced the formation of a new unit which will take concrete measures to combat what is becoming known as the darker side of globalization – forced and compulsory labour – which the Organization sees emerging in new forms, and growing.

The unit is the first in the ILO’s 82-year history to focus specifically on forced labour. It is an integral part of the ILO’s strengthened efforts to promote fundamental principles and rights at work, emphasizing technical cooperation and shared responsibility.

Its new head, human and labour rights expert Roger Plant, is part of a team of ILO officials in Bangkok this week for a meeting of government, employer and worker representatives from ILO member States across Asia and the Pacific, focusing on forced and compulsory labour. Funded by the governments of Japan and the US, the ILO/Japan/US Asian Regional Seminar on Application of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work groups 25 countries and territories.1

Practical measures to combat forced labour will take centre stage at the meeting. The ILO’s approach takes into account what Mr. Plant has described as "a sea change in the nature of forced and compulsory labour in the world today." An ILO global report on forced labour notes that, while in decades past, most forced labour was exacted by governments, today, "…the agents of coercive labour practices are very often not the State and its institutions, but rather, private individuals or enterprises acting with impunity." And, it says, there is "an explosion" in the numbers trafficked across national borders and continents, "and then forced into activities including sweatshop labour, domestic service and even prostitution."

The report says this is often a form of contemporary debt bondage, when the persons involved – and sometimes their families – have to pay off the expenses advanced to them for their illegal transport and immigration. "While international concern over trafficking is not new, the magnitude of the problem is."

The key problem is not necessarily legislation – but implementation, says ILO Executive Director for Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, Kari Tapiola. "This strengthens the case for increasing the ILO’s emphasis on technical assistance and cooperation," he said.

"Most countries need much more than just the right legislation. They need help to implement the laws they have, and with development. Many forms of forced labour are part of a vicious cycle – they are sometimes a response to poverty, but forced labour itself perpetuates poverty. Breaking the cycle means overcoming very deep-seated problems that include poverty and lack of development, and all kinds of shady and criminal activity."

Technical cooperation programmes already underway in the region targeting forms of forced and compulsory labour, include projects addressing bonded labour in South Asia, as well as trafficking in South Asia, and in the Mekong sub-region in South-East Asia.

ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Yasuyuki Nodera, said the projects reflected two things. "First, of course, that various forms of forced and compulsory labour do exist in those countries, but secondly, and more importantly, they show that governments and the social partners are committed to addressing it."

"This commitment is the key factor," Mr. Nodera said. "Identifying the problem is the first step – and takes courage in itself."

In Nepal, for example, he said the ILO was working with the Government, together with employer and worker representatives and donors on projects aiming at the sustainable elimination of bonded labour. Implementation had followed a Cabinet decision outlawing the kamaiya system.

"That decision spelled freedom for tens of thousands of people," Mr. Nodera said. "Sustaining that is not so simple. Their needs include: training in social dialogue to negotiate wages; as well as land; housing; microfinance; schooling and training for their children – and help for girl-children who may have left the family for outside work. All of these elements are part of our work."

Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, I.R. Iran, Japan, Kiribati, Republic of Korea, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand,  Viet Nam and Hong Kong, China - as well as donor representatives from Japan and the United States.