Published in December 2015 · Updated in May 2016
Deceptive recruitment and coercion
Forced labour can take many different forms. Victims are often tricked into jobs where they are paid little or nothing and then cannot leave because they have been manipulated into debt or had their identity documents confiscated. Poverty, illiteracy, discrimination and migration are some of the factors that make workers more vulnerable to forced labour.
Explore this InfoStory to discover how someone looking for work can become trapped in forced labour.
What is forced labour?
The term forced labour covers a wide variety of coercive labour practices where work is extracted from individuals under the threat of penalty. Those subject to forced labour are not free to leave their work and do not offer their labour voluntarily.
Human trafficking, debt bondage and modern-day slavery are all forms of forced labour. Currently, there are 21 million victims of forced labour around the world.
How do people get trapped in forced labour?
Economic migrants are one of the groups most vulnerable to forced labour. When a person migrates to look for work, their chances of finding decent work are very low.
How do those searching for legitimate employment become entrapped in forced labour?
The recruitment process
The use of coercion is very often subtle and hard to detect. Deception is the most common form of “recruitment” when it comes to forced labour.
Third-party recruiters – often operating unlawfully or semi-lawfully – may be the only source of employment information available to migrants. This makes it easy for them to lie about the nature of jobs and conditions of work.
Impunity and profits
These recruiters operate in an environment of impunity where their abuses are not investigated or prosecuted. Meanwhile, enterprises that use forced labour generate vast untaxed illegal profits.
Crossing borders and migration
Around 44% of forced labour victims are migrants, either moving within their own country or internationally. Once workers have crossed borders, they can find themselves more vulnerable to exploitation.
In the case of irregular migrants, employers can use the threat of denunciation to the immigration authorities to prevent workers from leaving.
Retention of passports
The retention of passports and other identity documents is one of the most common forms of coercion, restricting a migrant worker’s freedom of movement, preventing them from seeking help and trapping them in forced labour.
Debt bondage is another form of coercion used to entrap workers. The debt can be imposed in a number of ways.
Accepting credit for expenses such as travel costs immediately places a worker in debt to their employers. This debt can then be manipulated through sudden “rises” in interest rates or hidden charges.
Wages may be withheld in order to cover housing or tools and equipment.
This creates a situation where the worker becomes dependent on the employer for food and shelter.
Ending forced labour
The entrapment of economic migrants is just one variation of forced labour. Forced labour is a crime under international law, and should be punishable through penalties reflecting the gravity of the offence.
Although most countries outlaw forced labour, human trafficking and slavery-like practices in their national legislation, successful prosecutions of offenders sadly remain few and far between.
The importance of regulation
When labour markets fail and workers are left unprotected, the most vulnerable among them are at risk of exploitation.
Combatting forced labour requires the effective regulation of labour markets and proper enforcement of labour laws.