Forced Labour And Human Trafficking: The Challenges Ahead by Roger Plant, Vienna, November 2005

Presentation to OSCE High-Level Conference, “Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation on Forced and Bonded Labour”, Vienna, 7-8 November 2005

Statement | Vienna | 07 November 2005
Forced labour, like human trafficking, is a truly global problem. The number of victims may be by far the greatest in Asia (almost 9.5 million), for a number of reasons. This includes the huge incidence of bonded labour, affecting mainly caste minorities and outcastes in South Asia; the widespread incidence of trafficking for both labour and sexual exploitation throughout the region; or the severe problems of state imposed forced labour in some Asian countries. But the numbers are over a million in Latin America. And – significantly – at least 360,000 in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan.

Presentation to OSCE High-Level Conference, “Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation on Forced and Bonded Labour”, Vienna, 7-8 November 2005

Roger Plant

Head, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour



Distinguished participants all,

This is a time of important alliances and partnerships, to help us address – through concerted action – some of the most urgent human rights problems in the modern world,

Last year, the OSCE launched its Alliance against Trafficking in Persons, ably led and inspired by OSCE Special Representative Helga Konrad.

In May this year, the ILO Director General launched his own Global Alliance against Forced Labour. The impetus was our new Global Report on modern forced labour. To begin with, I’d like to share some of its main messages.

Forced labour. What is it?

First, what do we mean by forced labour, and what are its principal forms and characteristics in the modern world? For the ILO, there are two elements to a forced labour situation. Persons enter work or a service against their free choice: and they cannot get out of it without punishment or the threat of punishment. Of course there can be lengthy debates as to when a woman or man is acting out of free will, or under coercion. On the one hand people in dire poverty may be compelled by economic circumstances to accept miserable conditions of work. Irregular migrants are particularly vulnerable. Without papers, without legal residence, they may put up with virtually anything, rather than risk denunciation to the authorities followed by swift deportation.

And with trafficking victims, as is widely known, deception over the conditions to be expected in the place of destination is a large part of the problem, Most aspiring migrants willingly enter into contact with their recruiting or transporting agent, hoping this will be a smuggler rather than a trafficker. But very many are tricked as to the outcomes, whether the kind of work or service they are expected to carry out, or the wages if any they will receive, or the amount of debts they are expected to repay. All of this can add up to the forced labour outcomes of human trafficking, including severe debt bondage as a form of modern slavery.

And when talking about the forced labour outcomes of trafficking, I want to stress one important point, to guide our discussions at this conference and the necessary follow-up action. Among anti-trafficking activists, there can be a tendency to distinguish between sexual exploitation on the one hand, and forced labour exploitation on the other. In the ILO we see things rather differently. We are concerned to have adequate penalties and strict law enforcement against all those criminals who exploit others, usually defenceless and vulnerable persons, and often make huge illegal profits by doing so. We are also concerned to mix law enforcement with adequate prevention and rehabilitation programmes, and direct support to victims, wherever possible involving labour institutions in the process together with other agencies of government and civil society.

In all of these efforts, we don’t think it is particularly useful to draw categorical distinctions between labour and sexual exploitation as requiring completely different law and policy interventions; or as to the trafficking of women, children or even men as being separate issues. We are of course concerned that young women are particularly vulnerable, and that children at risk of trafficking for either sexual or labour exploitation do require special attention. But I am grateful to the European Union Experts Group among others for supporting our position that this is all forced labour. By seeing things in this way we can build more consensus on the problems the modern world is facing – in its labour markets, in its systems of social protection, in its demographic trends and dilemmas, and sometimes in the paradox of immigration policies – as well as in the narrower issues of forced and voluntary prostitution, which often receive the bulk of media attention, We can also reverse move away from a situation where trafficking discourse is dominated by sectoral interest groups, or a small range of government agencies concerned with border control or criminal law enforcement, towards more integrated strategies of prevention and law enforcement.

Modern forced labour. How big is the problem?

There are, at the very minimum, over 12 million victims of forced labour today. Of these, about 2.4 million are trafficked into forced labour (over 40% for forced commercial sexual exploitation, about one third for other forms of forced economic exploitation and a quarter for a mixture of the above or for undetermined reasons,

Forced labour, like human trafficking, is a truly global problem. The number of victims may be by far the greatest in Asia (almost 9.5 million), for a number of reasons. This includes the huge incidence of bonded labour, affecting mainly caste minorities and outcastes in South Asia; the widespread incidence of trafficking for both labour and sexual exploitation throughout the region; or the severe problems of state imposed forced labour in some Asian countries. But the numbers are over a million in Latin America. And – significantly – at least 360,000 in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan.

Our global estimate helps understand the gender dimensions of modern forced labour. In forced commercial sexual exploitation, 98% of the victims are women and girls. For other forms of forced economic exploitation. Just over half are women and girls, and 44% are men and boys. Worldwide, and considering all forms of forced labour exploitation, between 40% and half the victims are children under 18 years of age.

Our estimate also provides a regional distribution of trafficked forced labourers. I won’t go into details here, but just give the big picture. Trafficking accounts for less than one fifth of forced labour today in Asia, less than a quarter in Latin America, but for three quarters of all forced labour in the industrialized countries. And this, I insist, is a powerful reason why anti-trafficking action must focus on demand, and rigorous research into the facts of, the outcomes of trafficking in the destination countries of the OSCE group.

Finally on this point, we estimate that the profits made from all forms of trafficking – almost 32 billion US dollars per year – are far greater than has so far been appreciated. This refers to profits right through the trafficking chain, recruiters, transporters, intermediaries, and above all the exploiters of the trafficked victims in the place of destination. Over eighty per cent of these profits are made from sexual exploitation, but there is still a sizeable profit of 4 billion US dollars per year from other forms of economic exploitation. And approximately half of all profits are made in the industrialized countries.

There are few more hidden problems in the world today than forced labour. Four out of every five cases are in the private economy, usually the informal or underground economy and in fairly small enterprises. Where the formal economy is concerned, such as in supermarkets or agriculture, the forced labour is likely to exist at the bottom of complex sub-contracting chains. And in the OSCE countries, the victims are most likely to be irregular migrant workers.

When our Special Action Programme was created four years ago, there was almost no research on this. Gradually we have been able to build up a knowledge base, following some difficult but pioneering research in countries including France, Germany and the Russian Federation. We have also supported research conducted and published by NGOs and academics in other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. I am glad that, for the firs time today, we can distribute English language versions of our studies on Germany and the Russian Federation. While there is far more to be done –and in terms of understanding we are probably still at the tip of a disturbing iceberg – we can present at least some general picture.

First, while still claiming a lack of data, many OSCE countries now accept that they have a real problem. In the United States – where there have been prosecutions of slavery cases under the 2000 Trafficking Act in sectors including agriculture and sweatshops – there has been a recent spate of prominent media articles on labour trafficking. As an article in the New York Times recently observed, reporting in publications including the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine have all brought to light convincing evidence that the media coverage of sex slavery is “wildly disproportionate when compared to the number of trafficking victims forced into other – and equally dangerous – forced labour”.

Our own German study, carried out in close cooperation with labour inspectors and other government informants, has described 42 cases of forced labour. These include seasonal work in agriculture, construction work, catering, the fun-fair trade, meat processing and the exploitation of domestic workers, as well as forced sex work. The victims came from a wide range of African, Asian , Latin American and European countries – though the bulk of them were from central and eastern Europe. The findings pointed to only a small number of severe cases of exploitation, though to a far larger number of cases of coercion that did not involve outright physical violence or constraint.

Our study in the Russian Federation, focusing on migrants mainly from Central Asia in seven different economic sectors, presents a picture often similar to that in Germany. The authors distinguish between the cases of most severe exploitation (where all the main elements of coercion and physical restraint are in evidence) from cases where the forms of coercion might be considered less blatant. But where the migrant workers are nevertheless prevented from leaving or changing their employment. The latter can include: work without remuneration, as a form of debt repayment; unpaid overtime; some restrictions on freedom of movement; or denial of medical treatment. The study draws on a large sample of some 450 migrants in the Moscow, Omsk and Stavropol regions. It concludes that some form of coercion is considered a normal experience for the migrant workers. Initially, they migrate on an entirely voluntary basis. But the “cycle of deception” then entraps them at a later stage in the place of destination. Documents are withdrawn. Wages are left unpaid. In the Moscow region, almost one fifth of all informants claimed to be on conditions of debt bondage. And a slightly smaller percentage said they were threatened with punishment if they tried to leave their present employers.

Our recent study on France focuses on one particular ethnic group, the Chinese migrants who have been coming in large numbers to Europe over the past decade, from the southern provinces of Fujian and Zheijiang, and also from the so-called “rust-belt” provinces of north-eastern China. Why the focus on Chinese migrants? While overseas Chinese ethnic communities have been notoriously difficult to penetrate, there has been widespread anecdotal information of severe exploitation within them. Early last year, the tragic death of 20 illegal Chinese migrants in the United Kingdom, working in dangerous conditions for gangmasters, caused widespread shock. A recent study of forced labour in the United States notes that half of all forced labour victims – or some 10,000 persons in all – are Chinese. So our first experimental study aimed to heighten understanding of these problems, as a basis for improved prevention and awareness-raising in China itself, and also to stimulate more international cooperation.

We found, like many others, that high indebtedness is the key factor behind the severe labour exploitation of Chinese migrants abroad. The debts to snakeheads and trafficking intermediaries can be huge in proportion to average wages in China, perhaps 12-20,000 Euros in Europe and two or three times that amount in the United States. Repaying the debts can take as long as ten years, working up to 15 hours a day, sometimes under lock and key.

These are just a few examples, taken from our first national research programmes in Europe. Rigorous work on the demand aspects of human trafficking. including the economic sectors involved, is still in its infancy. The sectors most often mentioned are – in addition to the well known sex industry – agriculture, construction, garments and textiles under sweatshop conditions, catering and restaurants, and entertainment. But a growing body of research is now showing that coercive practices can also affect migrant workers in other quite mainstream economic sectors, including food processing, health care and contract cleaning.

And this is one thing on which we must firmly focus our attention. It is tempting for politicians and public opinion in the richer countries to wash their hands of the problem of modern forced labour, insisting that it is a matter of ethnic minorities exploiting their own nationals in the underground economy, As we argue in our Global Report however, it is a matter of particularly grave concern when coercive labour practices against migrants can pervade major enterprises and even the public sector. Migrant workers may be recruited in their home countries, on the understanding that they will have a particular job and fixed salary in the destination place, only to receive on arrival a contract with entirely different conditions. Health care and other workers can steadily accumulate debts over the recruitment and transporting process, being billed for interviews in hotel rooms, visas, air fares and other items. On arrival they may be subject to inflated accommodation charges, with no real choice as to where they stay. These are some key features of modern debt bondage, with its complex web of deception in which apparently above board and legitimate recruitment agencies are sometimes involved.

Addressing forced labour today: strategic approaches

Enough of the basic facts. My main task today is to set out the ways in which, through our respective alliances, we can wipe out the scourge of forced and bonded labour over the coming years. I’ll begin with some broad strategic elements, together with the gaps in our knowledge and in policy frameworks, then provide some concrete examples of what we and others are doing.

As a first caveat, participants at meetings like this sometimes divide themselves into opposing camps. Some insist that criminal law enforcement is the way forward. Others place exclusive priorities on a human rights based approach of prevention and victim protection. Some believe that action against trafficking should focus mainly on the sexual exploitation of women and children: others argue with reason that it is the criminal exploitation that matters, wherever it occurs, and whatever the age or sex of the victim.

These are often false dichotomies. A focus on forced labour can help all actors against trafficking develop a coherent vision, blending criminal law enforcement with practical measures of prevention and rehabilitation of victims, improving data collection, and also drawing due attention to the labour market and other policy failures that are often a the root cause of trafficking.

Legislation and law enforcement

The United Nations Palermo Protocol now requires ratifying States to incorporate in their anti-trafficking laws the forced labour dimensions of trafficking. It is easy enough to do this, through a brief article in criminal law or other national legislation. It is another matter to devise the appropriate penalties, and enforce the law effectively through investigations, prosecutions, and where relevant compensation for victims.

If we look around the OSCE and the rest of the world, there are only a handful of prosecutions. And there is a “chicken and egg” situation. Irregular migrants and their support groups are unlikely to denounce forced labour cases to the police, when they fear arrest and deportation themselves. There are no statistics and no data gathering on a hidden problem. Police and prosecutors rarely get resources for proactive investigations. And they can be reluctant to commit scarce resources, when there are slim chances of securing convictions.

Moreover – and this is a key point for follow-up to the present meeting – there is as yet no common understanding (in Europe for example) of appropriate penalties for the different degrees of labour exploitation. The jurisprudence has yet to be developed. When workers are locked up and forced to work for months without pay, or assaulted and threatened, there is probably consensus that the culprits should be put behind bars for a lengthy period.

What is the ILO doing? Concrete examples and future challenges

Our activities on forced labour and trafficking began with data gathering, awareness raising and policy advice. On child trafficking, the ILO’s IPEC programme has a lengthy experience with projects throughout the world, focusing in large part on community-based prevention. More recently the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour has commenced operational projects in different regions of Africa, Asia and Europe, aiming to combine the efforts of labour institutions and other law enforcement agencies; and also seeking to enhance cooperation between origin and destination countries.

On data gathering, work has barely commenced at the OSCE and global levels. Just a few countries, such as the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, have made their own proactive efforts to probe into the forced labour dimensions of trafficking. Portugal has recently requested our assistance on a pilot study. Only a few countries (such as Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US in the OSCE area) maintain some form of data base on forced labour and trafficking, to guide national policy in this area. Over the coming years, building on our pilot work to date, we plan to provide training and capacity building for appropriate survey methodologies, disaggregating forced labour by its different forms, as well as by gender and age. There are also gaps in cross-national research, addressing the entire trafficking cycle. Our work on trafficking in and from China to Europe is beginning to fill this gap, and will hopefully provide some sort of model for future research and action.

On overall law and policy advice, we are pleased to distribute here our publication on Human Trafficking and Forced Labour Exploitation: Guidance for Legislation and Law Enforcement. I am grateful to the Government of Germany for first encouraging us to do this, insisting that the concept and forms of modern forced labour needed more explanation, not only for drafters of the new laws but also for the implementing agencies. So this does not propose a model law. It explains the relevance of the ILO’s own Conventions, not only on forced and child labour, but also on migrant workers and private employment agencies among many others, in enabling States to come fully to grips with the problems of forced labour and trafficking.

Of late, in both our policy guidance and capacity building, we have been giving more and more attention to the role and responsibilities of private recruitment and employment agencies. While these play a legitimate and important role in labour markets, there is always potential for abuse. Internationally, they can overcharge, use the range of deceptive practices referred to earlier, and in the worst cases be complicit in forced labour practices. And at the national level, it is the unregistered “gangmaster” type agencies, providing seasonal workers at the bottom of sub-contracting chains, which may subject vulnerable migrants to forced labour abuse. Several of these agencies, at ether national or international level, have adopted their own codes of conduct to curb such abusive practices.

Our technical cooperation are quite young, several commencing only last year, and we are just beginning to learn the first lessons of experience. As noted, we always seeks to have parallel activities in original and destination countries, and where possible to involve labour institutions in both prevention and law enforcement. Examples are a project between the Russian Federation and several CIS countries, in particular aiming to benefit migrant workers and the Kyrgyz Republic and three regions of Russia, as well as to raise awareness of forced labour among the Russian population; a capacity building project on forced labour and trafficking in Europe (covering fur origin and three destination countries). aimed at law and policy makers, police, prosecutors, labour inspectors, employers and trade unions; an action programme against forced labour and trafficking in West Africa (which targets poor rural communities for its preventive action, but includes some activities in the Netherlands as a destination country); and the project I have mentioned in China, which emphasizes the role of labour institutions in law enforcement and international cooperation.

Just a few days ago I returned from an event in China, which brought together a mix of Chinese and European officials from labour and public security or interior ministries, together with officials from Chinese sender provinces and representatives of Chinese recruitment agencies, among others. Gradually – after years of preparation, including research in the destination countries, and progressive awareness-raising in China at national and provincial levels – the project is having a real impact. Both sides want firm action against the Chinese snakeheads. But it is clear that progress will be slow, until there is more awareness of the scope for and methods of legal migration. If the project can contribute to this, with more cooperation among Chinese and European officials, then it is possible to make a dent on this particular form of forced labour.

Elsewhere, our projects will continue to promote a three-pronged strategy of:

° Seeking prosecution of trafficking and forced labour offences through clearer laws and better law enforcement in origin and destination countries alike

° Prevention of trafficking through better migration management and labour market administration

° Empowerment of actual or potential victims through targeted information campaigns, legal support, and alternative income-generation activities through micro-finance and other community-based initiatives.

To conclude, I return to the role of our respective alliances. The OSCE alliance against trafficking in all its forms, and the ILO’s global alliance against forced labour, should complement each other, The OSCE has a strong and influential network, and close experience with national agencies against trafficking. The ILO has particular strength in tackling the forced labour and labour exploitation dimensions of human trafficking, and in involving its social partners in action against all forms of trafficking.

As we recognize in calling for a global alliance against forced labour, the ILO can only be a “small player” in operational projects. It can raise the world’s conscience on a hidden issue. It can draw attention to the structural failings of labour markets at a time of globalization. It can call for the more vigorous application of a range of ILO Conventions. But if we are to have a decisive impact on these problems, on either the demand or supply side, additional actors need to be involved. Particular absent until now is the business community, which is why we are now urging employer groups within our own organization to examine how they can contribute better to global action against trafficking. They can have rigorous codes of conduct for their own members. They can be on constant alert, in the economic sectors most at risk. But they can also fund preventive work, through both direct investment in the poverty stricken areas from where the victims of trafficking often emanate, and through involvement in awareness raising. Employers and workers also need to agree on common minimum standards, to ensure that flexible employment practices do not degenerate into unacceptable forms of modern forced labour.