Business and Forced Labour

The international labour standards on forced labour include the Forced Labour Convention,1930 (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention,1957 (No. 105). The 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work calls on all member States to promote and realize this right within their territories whether or not they have ratified Conventions 29 and 105.

The 1998 Declaration and the MNE Declaration call upon enterprises to help combat forced labour. While companies operating legally do not normally employ forced labour, they may become associated with such practices their business links with others, including contractors and suppliers. As a result, all managers should be aware of the forms and causes of forced labour, as well as how it might occur in different industry sectors and along the supply chains.

Forced or compulsory labour is any work or service that is exacted from a person under the threat of penalty, and for which that person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. Penalties may include imprisonment, the threat or use of physical violence and preventing a worker from moving freely outside the work site. Threats also may be more subtle such as threats to harm a victim’s family; threats to denounce an illegal worker to the authorities; or withholding wages to compel a worker to stay in hopes of eventually being paid.

Labour should be freely given and workers should be free to leave, subject to previous notice of reasonable length. Determining whether work is performed voluntarily often involves looking at external and indirect pressures, such as the withholding of part of a worker’s salary as part-repayment of a loan, the absence of wages or remuneration, or the seizure of the worker‘s identity documents.

Debt bondage is another way many workers end up in a situation of forced labour. Debt bondage exists when labourers (sometimes with their families) are forced to work for an employer in order to pay off their own debts or those they have inherited. The victims of debt bondage, if they try to leave their employment, are usually caught and returned by force. Providing wages or other compensation to a worker does not necessarily indicate that the labour is not forced or compulsory.

The ILO estimates that there are 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour on any given day. Eighty-six per cent of forced labour cases are imposed by private actors – 63 per cent in the private economy in sectors other than commercial sexual exploitation. Most victims receive little or no earnings, and work for long hours in extremely poor and unsafe conditions. Many of the victims are trafficked, usually across international borders. Forced labour is a truly global problem, also present in developed countries where it affects mainly trafficked migrant workers. Both women and men can be victims; a total of 3.3 million children are in situations of forced labour, accounting for about 12 per cent of all those in forced labour.

Q&As on Business and forced Labour

  • What is forced labour
  • Business contribution to the elimination of forced labour
  • Use of prison labour
  • Locking in workers
  • Passport retention of workers
  • Subsistence conditions of work
  • Compulsory overtime
  • Exploitation
  • Contracts
  • Work on off-shore sites