Combating forced labour and discrimination in Africa

Niger, one of the world’s most poverty-stricken nations, is one of a few African countries to have recognised a forced labour problem linked in large part to discrimination against people of slave descent.

Background and justification

A global alliance against forced labour, the ILO Director-General’s 2005 global report on the topic, concludes that forced labour is a problem affecting virtually every country in the world, but that significant gaps remain in our understanding of such practices in Africa. It suggests that more awareness-raising, research and operational activities are needed to better understand and tackle both “traditional” and newer forms of forced labour in the continent, and how these may be linked to broader patterns of discrimination. The report identifies a range of known and possible problems, including slavery-related practices, services exacted from one social or ethnic group by another (e.g. forest-dwelling Batwa or pygmies) or imposed by traditional authorities, forms of debt bondage, abductions including of children for forced military service, withholding of wages, forced domestic service, forced economic and commercial sexual exploitation linked to internal and external trafficking and migration, forced prison labour in unacceptable conditions and forced overtime and unpaid service of private and public sector workers. In a context of widespread poverty and deep-rooted traditions, such problems seem likely to pervade significant parts of the urban and rural informal economies but remain largely undocumented and have not yet, with several notable exceptions, received much attention from governments, social partners and the international community. ILO estimates that there are at least 660,000 victims of forced labour in sub-Saharan Africa, of whom 130,000 have been trafficked.

Niger, one of the world’s most poverty-stricken nations, is one of a few African countries to have recognised a forced labour problem linked in large part to discrimination against people of slave descent; it has been the subject of observations by the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) under Convention No. 29 on forced labour on a number of occasions. Another forced labour issue that has been considered by the CEACR is the issue of forced begging by children (talibé), linked to traditional forms of religious education. Niger adopted legislation in 2003 to outlaw slavery-related practices, and to impose heavy sanctions on slave-holders. There has been a programme of technical cooperation with the ILO since 2001, starting with a general study, under the auspices of the French government-funded PAMODEC programme, to investigate the obstacles and opportunities for the realisation of all four fundamental principles and rights at work. This study, validated in a tripartite workshop, provided an opportunity for initial debate over the highly sensitive issue of forced labour related to slave status, along with other, less contentious forms. It has led to a number of significant developments since: a national awareness-raising forum on forced labour, organised in 2001 by the ILO with the Government of Niger and the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger (ACTN); the adoption by the ACTN of a solemn commitment to work for the eradication of forced labour; a more in-depth study of the nature and prevalence of forced labour, with proposals for a draft action plan, validated in a tripartite-plus workshop in late 2002; awareness-raising workshops with traditional chiefs in three regions of the country; and a community radio-based information campaign. The Government has now requested ILO/SAP-FL’s assistance in formulating and implementing a more comprehensive National Action Plan against Forced Labour, at a time when the issue of slavery in Niger is attracting a considerable amount of international media attention.

The launch of the Global Report in several locations in Africa has represented an initial step in drawing attention to possible forced labour problems. Follow-up activities are now needed at country or sub-regional level to delve deeper into these issues. Some governments, such as that of Madagascar (where an initial study has already been undertaken) have already approached the ILO for assistance. Others (e.g., Kenya, Swaziland and Tanzania) expressed an interest during the International Labour Conference in June 2005 in investigating and acting against various forms of forced labour. In still others, there is a need to place the issue on the table through consultations involving ILO’s tripartite partners and civil society organisations.

Target groups

The project’s direct target groups are Ministries of Labour and other relevant government agencies, employers’ and workers’ organisations and other civil society partners. The project will work also with academic institutions. In Niger, the ACTN is an important additional target group. The project’s ultimate beneficiaries are men, women, boys and girls who are subject to forced labour, including talibé children.