More than 12 million people are victims of forced labour, UN labour agency says

The hands of a labourer in Niger

11 May 2005 – More than 12 million people are working in coercive, slavery-like conditions, but “many countries at present do not provide in their legislation for the specific offence of forced labour,” the United Nations labour agency says, calling for a new global alliance to abolish the system.

“Forced labour represents the underside of globalization and denies people their basic rights and dignity,” International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Juan Somavia says. “To achieve a fair globalization and decent work for all, it is imperative to eradicate forced labour.

“There is a critical need for devising effective strategies against forced labour today,” he adds. “This requires a blend of law enforcement and ways of tackling the structural roots of forced labour, whether outmoded agrarian systems, or poorly functioning labour markets.”

To move the world towards this goal, the ILO has published a new report, called “A Global Alliance against Forced Labour,” with the most comprehensive analysis of the facts and causes of all aspects of forced labour and slavery-like work ever, as well as ways of tackling the multi-faceted problem.

It says 9.8 million of the at least 12.3 million people being exploited are working in the private sector, including a minimum of 2.4 million victims of human trafficking. The comments of ILO supervisory bodies make clear that coercive sexual exploitation also constitutes forced labour, it adds.

Some 9.5 million forced labourers are in Asia, which is the region with the highest number; 1.3 million in Latin America and the Caribbean; 660,000 in sub-Saharan Africa; 260,000 in the Middle East and North Africa; 360,000 in industrialized countries; and 210,000 in transition countries, it estimates.

Children younger than 18 years comprise 40 to 50 per cent of all forced labour victims, ILO says.

In such sectors as agriculture, construction, brick-making and sweatshop manufacturing, the sexes are fairly evenly represented, the report says, adding that each trafficked worker generates an average annual profit of some $13,000. “However, forced commercial sexual exploitation entraps almost entirely women and girls.”

In Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, trafficked workers are just about 20 per cent of forced labour, while in the industrialized, transition countries, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, trafficked persons form more that 75 per cent of forced labour.

Another 2.5 million persons worldwide are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups, the report says.

Besides regional analyses of the problem, the report gives examples from countries in which Governments are tackling the problem with ILO help.

ILO and the United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova aim to strengthen administrative controls over private recruitment mechanisms, such as model, bridal and travel agencies sometimes been used by trafficker networks, it says. A similar project covers the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

In China, ILO is working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, as well as with the Ministries of Justice and Public Security, the National People’s Congress and the Legislative Office of the State Council, to train provincial labour and law enforcement officials about the issues, and to educate and engage worker organizations in preventing trafficking and identifying victims.

In India, ILO is preventing the recruitment of bonded labour by providing such empowering alternatives as basic education, microfinance, skills and entrepreneurial training and by strengthening women’s self-help groups.

Brazil’s great forced labour problem is the recruitment of slave labour for cattle-raising and other agricultural work, ILO says, and it is helping the Government to create effective law enforcement against it, including imposing penalties on exploiters.

Building on the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) initiative to remove human trafficking from the sub-region, ILO is helping to mobilize communities in Nigeria and Ghana to prevent abusive recruitment, educate prospective migrants about the precautions they should take and provide for the rehabilitation of returnees.

Domestic workers are being helped to organize in defence of their rights and to ally themselves with labour unions throughout Southeast Asia, the report says.

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