Slaves of the Third Millennium

Millions Caught in Web of Human Trafficking

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GENEVA, JULY 23, 2005 ( The plight of an estimated 12.3 million people trapped in forced labor around the world was analyzed at the annual conference of the 178-member International Labor Organization. The ILO meeting, held May 31-June 16 at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, dedicated the June 8 session to discuss a report prepared on the issue.

During the May 11 release of the text of the report, titled «A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor,» ILO Director-General Juan Somavia called such labor «a social evil which has no place in the modern world.» He added: «To achieve a fair globalization and decent work for all, it is imperative to eradicate forced labor.»

The report calculates that at least 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking. It also provides the first global estimate of the profits generated by the exploitation of trafficked women, children and men: $32 billion a year, or about $13,000 per victim.

The report starts by defining the concept of forced labor. It is not to be confused with poor working conditions or substandard wages. Rather, the ILO considers that two elements are involved in forced labor: the work or service is exacted under the menace of a penalty; and it is undertaken involuntarily.

The forms of forced labor vary widely. In the past, slavery or bonded labor was common, and still persists in some countries, particularly in Asia. More modern forms are often linked to migratory labor and trafficking in persons for commercial reasons, often involving women and children in activities ranging from drug dealing to begging to sexual exploitation. As well, migrant workers in the Mideast and elsewhere are often obliged to hand over identity documents and find themselves tied to one household with restricted freedom of movement.

Low estimates

Of the 12.3 million people in forced labor, 9.8 million are exploited in the private sector. Another 2.5 million are forced to work by governments or by rebel military groups.

This is the first time the ILO has made an estimate of people involved in forced labor and a part of the report is dedicated to describing the methodology used. The figure is a «minimum estimate» that probably errs on the low side, the study acknowledges.

Most of the people affected by this phenomenon are in Asia, with some 9.5 million forced laborers. Latin America and the Caribbean follows with 1.3 million. The rest are made up of 660,000 in sub-Saharan Africa; 260,000 in the Mideast and North Africa; 360,000 in industrialized countries; and 210,000 in transition countries.

A breakdown of the data shows regional differences in the composition of the type of forced labor. In Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of trafficked victims is under 20% of all forced labor. In industrialized countries, transition countries and the Mideast and North Africa region, however, trafficking accounts for more than 75% of forced labor.

The report noted that in practice there is frequently a mixture of human smuggling and trafficking. Many of those who end up in forced labor have migrated voluntarily and become victims on their way to or at their destination. The main types of work affected by trafficking are the sex industry, agriculture, domestic work and construction. It also occurs in the sector of restaurants and catering, as well as small sweatshop enterprises.

The ILO report further commented that while state-imposed forced labor is not the largest problem in terms of numbers, it nonetheless remains a cause for serious concern. The types of labor involve practices such as work imposed by the state for «anti-social» acts, particularly in China with its «re-education through labor» system. Official figures from the Chinese Ministry of Justice indicate that some 260,000 people were detained under this system as of early 2004.

The military regime in Myanmar is also notorious for its forced labor programs, with numerous complaints coming to the attention of the ILO. The report accused the regime of allowing a situation «where state policies permit local authorities to use and benefit from the forced labor of the poor.» In Africa, the report continued, there are concerns about the possible imposition of forced labor for development purposes.

Causes and cures

The report observes that there is no unanimity over what causes forced labor. In developing countries, where in the rural sector there is forced and bonded labor, there are ongoing debates as to whether the failure of credit or financial markets, or agrarian systems and unequal power relationships, explain the persistence this type of forced work. Nor is it clear to what extent the current trend of globalization contributes to new forms of forced labor.

In developing countries, the overwhelming majority of victims of forced labor are poor. And in many cases the exaction of forced labor can be linked to a pattern of discrimination.

In recent years countries have tried to coordinate action to fight the exploitation of people. On Dec. 25, 2003, the Trafficking Protocol supplementing the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime entered into force.

At the regional level organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the Economic Community of West African States, have issued declarations and formulated plans to combat the problem.

A number of difficulties, however, have impeded efforts. Definitions of human trafficking or forced labor are often so general that prosecutors and the courts find it hard to identify these situations in practice. Also, separate laws might define forced labor, slavery and trafficking differently. And even when a country has a constitutional prohibition against such practices, it is often not supported by specific laws, making it extremely difficult to bring cases to trial.

Additionally, those victims who are illegal migrants are often reluctant to denounce forced labor practices to authorities, since they fear being deported and losing the wages due to them.

Action plan

The ILO report concludes with a series of proposals to fight forced labor. For a start, it recommends tackling the roots of the problem, which arise from causes such as discrimination, deprivation and poverty. Then it calls for remedying defects such as inadequate regulation and weak or nonexistent labor inspections. As well, it urges the adoption of clear legislation and the delegation of real power to law enforcement agents.

Another recommendation is improving coordination, with the forming of a global alliance against forced labor, between organizations of employers and workers, government agencies, and other international bodies.

The report also urges countries to put in place comprehensive rehabilitation programs to support the victims of forced labor. Without this help, it warns, the freed victims might fall back into further situations of forced labor.

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