Investigating forced labour and trafficking: Do they exist in Zambia?

This research project was undertaken in response to an approach by the Zambian Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS) to the International Labour Office (ILO) to request assistance to look into the possible existence of forced labour practices in Zambia. In particular, MLSS had become concerned about the practices of some recruitment agencies, which were acting as ‘labour brokers’ in the mining sector. These agencies were thought to be exploiting jobseekers after they had been placed into employment, by retaining a significant part of their wages as a placement fee. MLSS’ concern arose following the lodging of complaints by workers over non-payment of terminal benefits, with neither the client company nor the recruitment agency accepting responsibility for the payment.

This project aimed to investigate whether forced labour exists in Zambia, and if so, in what forms. Unlike some countries where ‘traditional’ forms of forced labour, such as debt bondage and serfdom, persist, these are not prevalent in Zambia.
Analysis of the labour-related complaints registered at the MLSS and HRC shows that some forced labour problems exist. There are cases where workers were working without pay for extended periods, and unable to leave due to forfeiture of the wages due; or unable to complain because of the threat of dismissal; or have been promised one job, only to be made to carry out another. In the majority of these cases, the workers are no longer doing the job voluntarily as they cannot leave without losing their pay or benefits. The high levels of unemployment in Zambia, and the high number of workers in the informal economy, clearly make it easy for employers to exploit workers’ vulnerability and treat them in ways that are unacceptable and unlawful.
In conclusion, the research confirms that forced labour and trafficking do exist in Zambia. Many Zambians, desperate for employment, are willing to accept any job offer. Employers sometimes exploit workers’ vulnerability and impose severe conditions of work and other means to keep them in the job against their will. Their desperation stems from poverty and until poverty is alleviated, forced labour and trafficking are likely to continue. However, specific measures can and must be taken to reduce their incidence and impact in the short and medium term. These measures should be undertaken in the context of broader efforts to provide all workers with the decent work they deserve.