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What is forced labour?

What is the problem?

Forced labour is any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form punishment.  Almost all slavery practices, including trafficking in people and bonded labour, contain some element of forced labour.

Forced labour affects millions of men, women and children around the world and is most frequently found in labour intensive and/or under-regulated industries, such as:

  • Agriculture and fishing 
  • Domestic work
  • Construction, mining, quarrying and brick kilns 
  • Manufacturing, processing and packaging
  • Prostitution and sexual exploitation
  • Market trading and illegal activities

How big is the problem?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 20.9 million people in forced labour worldwide. The figure means that, at any given point in time, around three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide are suffering in forced labour.

Some more detailed ILO's statistic:
  • 18.7 million (90%) people are in forced labour in the private economy, exploited by individuals or enterprises. Out of these, 4.5 million (22%) are in forced sexual exploitation, and 14.2 million (68%) in forced labour exploitation in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing.
  • Women and girls represent the greater share of forced labour victims 11.4 million (55%), as compared to 9.5 million (45%) men and boys.
  • Adults are more affected than children 74% (15.4 million) of victims fall in the age group of 18 years and above, whereas children are 26% of the total (or 5.5 million child victims).
  • 2.2 million (10%) work in state-imposed forms of forced labour, for example in prisons under conditions which violate ILO standards, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces.

Why is there a problem?

In around 10 per cent of cases the State or the military is directly responsible for the use of forced labour. Notable examples where this takes place are Burma, North Korea and China.  However, in the vast majority of cases forced labour is used by private individuals who are seeking to make profits from the exploitation of other people.

Victims of forced labour are frequently from minority or marginalised groups who face institutionalised discrimination and live on the margins of society where they are vulnerable to slavery practices. Forced labour is usually obtained as a result of trapping the individual in debt bondage or by restricting their freedom of movement.  In other cases violence, threats and intimidation are used and/or there is an absence of effective State protection.

Where is the problem?

Forced labour is a global problem, although some regions have larger numbers of people affected than others.  The regional distribution of forced labour is:

  • Asia and Pacific: 11.7 million (56%)
  • Africa: 3.7 million (18%)
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 1.8 million (9%)
  • The Developed Economies (US, Canada, Australia, European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Japan): 1.5 million (7%)
  • Central, Southeast and Eastern Europe (non EU) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CSEE): 1.6 million (7%)
  • Middle East: 600,000 (3%)

Case studies

“I was recruited from at a soup kitchen at a park in London. They always target people with drinking problems because we are easier to manipulate are more easy to make bad decisions by believing their lies. They know we will never claim our rights. I was promised between £50 and £70 a day but instead was paid virtually nothing. I was tricked twice. The first time I worked for a month without pay, the second time for two months.  I was transported to and from different jobs block-paving driveways. I wanted to leave but the gang who employed me were intimidating and I had heard that other men who had tried to leave were beaten up by the gang. Plus, we were in the middle of the countryside, miles from the nearest town.”

Krzysztof, from Poland, experienced two bouts of forced labour in the UK at the hands of gangs who recruited him while he was drinking and vulnerable.

"This year the chairman of the collective farm insisted that I, and my daughter-in-law and my remaining children, go out to pick cotton otherwise he would take our plot away [garden plot used to grow fruits and vegetables]. The chairman said that if we don't go out, I'll have to pay one hundred thousand sum (approximately US$70- equivalent to more than three average monthly wages). When I said there was no way I could pay that kind of money, he started to threaten that in that case we wouldn't get the welfare payment. I don't know where to turn to complain."

Mother of six children, Boiavut district, Uzbekistan

"One time while I was sowing, I was so tired that I stopped for a rest.  A young guard caught me and grabbed me by my neck.  I pleaded with the guard and begged for his forgiveness, but he just cursed at me and kicked me on my back and head.  He said how I could dare to be tired when I had been eating so well in China.  Because of that beating, I suffer from chronic back pains and headaches still today."


A 57 year old woman from Kyongsong explains her experience of forced labour at the Hoeryong labour training camp in North Korea

"We must work for the Bantu masters.  We cannot refuse to do so because we are likely to be beaten or be victims of insults and threats.  Even though we agree to work all day in the fields, we are still asked to work even more, for example, to fetch firewood or go hunting.  Most of the time, they pay us in kind, a worn loincloth for 10 workdays. We cannot refuse because we do not have a choice.

Interview with an indigenous man in the Congo.

Laws

The ILO defines forced labour as: “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of a penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. 

This definition is set out in the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29).  This Convention has been ratified by over 170 states and obliges governments to “suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms within the shortest possible period”.

The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also prohibits the use of forced labour (Article 8) and has been ratified by more than 160 states. 

China is the only country in the world which has not ratified either of these international standards.  However, many countries have not passed specific laws defining and prohibiting forced labour with adequate punishments for those responsible.  Where these laws exist they are often not enforced properly.

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man carrying tomatoes
Many migrant workers are trafficked into the United States and are forced to harvest crops on farms in Florida
©Shiho Fukada

 

Forced labour in Uzbekistan  Children in Uzbekistan are forced out of schools to pick cotton in a state sponsored forced labour.