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Behind the figures: Faces of forced labour

Forced labour affects all regions and many different sectors, thus taking different faces, including bonded labour, degrading working conditions, trafficking, abuse of vulnerability. However, with a sustained commitment and resources, it is possible to combat forced labour.

Feature | 01 June 2012
Forced labour is the antithesis of decent work. Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour globally – trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave. The least protected persons, including women and youth, indigenous peoples and migrant workers, are particularly vulnerable.

A way out of debt bondage

The majority of bonded labourers are in Asia and Latin America. They pledge their labour against a loan or a wage advance. An accident or sickness can oblige workers to borrow more money, which plunges them into a vicious cycle of indebtedness, passing the debt from generation to generation.

Children of the Tamang ethnic group working in a stone quarry in Nepal. In September 2008 the Government of Nepal announced that it was abolishing the Haliya system, a form of bonded labour in agriculture.

Smita worked as a bonded labourer in domestic work for a few years. She was rescued by the National Domestic Workers Movement in Mumbai, India. Today she is a free bird, studying and enjoying her freedom.

In Tamil Nadu (India), the ILO has supported concerted efforts involving government, employers and workers to reduce workers’ vulnerability to bondage.

With the help of the Joint Action Forum of Trade Unions (JAFTU), workers in the rice mills have formed their own organisation that is now negotiating with employers for increased wages and better working conditions.

Eradicating slavery-like practices

Slavery-related practices, rooted in long-standing discrimination patterns, remain an issue in certain African countries, affecting particularly indigenous tribes and slave descendants.
In 2008, the ECOWAS Court of Justice held Niger responsible for failing to protect Hadijatou, a woman of slave descent, and for tolerating de facto the practice of slavery.

Soumana (on the left) with her master Abdoulaye in Abalak, Niger

A further issue of concern has been the exaction of forced labour from forest-dwelling peoples including Pygmies in several countries of the Central African region.
African children also face the risk of being forcibly recruited as child soldiers.

Pascatia a former child soldier, was trained as a stockbreeder and continues to go to school, thanks to an ILO project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Punishing trafficking in persons

Several African countries have adopted new anti-trafficking legislation, examples being Mozambique in April 2008, and the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia later that year.

Young girl, victim of traffickers, who tried to smuggle her into Benin. Picture taken at the border of Burkina Faso

While trafficking for sexual exploitation has received a lot of attention for many years, trafficking for labour exploitation is now moving up the agenda of policy-makers as more evidence of its existence comes to light, especially in Europe. Several European countries have developed mechanisms of referral and assistance for victims.

Moldova is a country of origin for people trafficked to a range of Western European countries as well as Russia and Turkey. A pilot survey carried out in the country in 2008 showed that 7.8 per cent of Moldovan migrants were victims of trafficking for forced labour.

Strengthening labour inspection

Efficient labour inspectorates not only have the potential to prevent accidents at work, they can also help to make an ILO vision become a reality: that no human being spends a day of his or her life working under coercion or suffering degrading or inhuman treatment.

Brazil has taken a lead in realizing this vision. Successive national action plans adopted in 2003 and 2008 have resulted in the liberation of thousands of workers through labour inspection activities and measures to fight impunity of employers. The ILO, through its Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, has supported these national efforts over the past decade.

A worker who was found in slave-like working conditions with his new labour and social security cards, making him feel like a "real" citizen of his country.

ILO’s strategy against forced labour is based on its global alliance with workers’ and employers’ organisations, which has led to concrete action on the ground, such as the mobilization of indigenous workers and innovative action to eliminate forced labour from global supply chains.
Since 2002, the ILO Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour assists countries to put into practice their legal commitments.

Freed forced labourers gather outside the local agricultural union. With the union's help, these workers are bringing a case against a landowner for non-payment of wages.