Opening Remarks at the Seminar on Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No.29)

By Mr Tim De Meyer, Director, ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia

Statement | Kunming, China | 24 November 2017
Ms Xie Qun, Mr Lv Yulin, Ms. Liu Hansong,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon, I am pleased to be back among old friends in Kunming.

Thank the organizers (MoHRSS, YBoRSS); the participants from a wide variety of distinguished government agencies; ACFTU and CEC; stimulating set of resource persons (Richard, Michaella, Nilim, Rene, Alain); our sponsors the European Union and our project partners of the IOM.

Labour performed under coercion or threat rather than on the basis of an agreement that brings clear benefits to both employer and worker is economically unproductive, socially unsustainable and ultimately disrespectful of human dignity. Yet, the world is only beginning to understand how pervasive it is in the modern economy. About 25 million men, women and children around the world still fall victim to forced labour, 15.6 million of them are women and girls and 9.2 million men and boys. 4.8 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation, a vast majority (99%) of them predictably women and girls. If one adds related phenomena such as forced marriage, debt bondage, descent-based slavery, or human trafficking, the numbers rise to over 40 million people worldwide. Needless to say that forced labour is an evil that appears in many different forms and in various degrees of severity and therefore defies easy calculation, but deserves to be counted in order to better recognize and combat it. Eradicating all forms of forced labour, which we have set out to do in target 8.7 of the 2030 Development Agenda, is fundamental because it underpins all the other efforts we are making to improve people’s well-being through decent work, whether it is improving their skills, enhancing their social protection or protecting them from discrimination.

Human trafficking for labour exploitation is a lucrative business that generates huge sums of illegal benefits for employers, enforcers and intermediaries alike. Forced labour in the private economy sector generates around $150 billion US dollars annually, and the ILO estimates that victims of exploitation and forced labour loose approximately $21 billion US dollars every year in unpaid earnings and allowances. This loss of payments are not only a severe restriction in human freedom and a serious violation of international labour standards; they also have significant negative effects on many economies due to the loss of taxes, remittances and labour force.

Nearly one of every four victims of forced labour was exploited outside their country of residence. Migrants often face coercion in form of physical and sexual violence as part of intimidation, threats, withholding of wages or important documents like passports, or debt bondage resulting from excessive recruitment and migration costs. In many parts of the world, irregular migrants as well as most labour migrants working in low skilled sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and domestic work still don’t have access to the necessary legal protection required in order to protect them from becoming victims of trafficking, exploitation, and forced labour.

Today, we are revisiting an aspect of the global fight against forced labour that we first started examining in January 2003, the ratification of relevant international labour standards on forced labour. Ratification is important not because it will eradicate forced labour by itself – it will not – but because ratification cements the political resolve needed to eradicate it and cements the conviction that we will only succeed if we make a multilateral effort to share the same understanding and thus work towards the same goal, no matter how remote it may seem at times. It is precisely this multilateral effort that Foreign Minister Wang Yi had in mind when he signed up in September to the Call to Action to end Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking.

National policies against forced labour provide the framework for actions to prevent forced labour with specific focus on identifying priority sectors and occupations, raising public awareness, developing institutional capacity and coordination, mobilizing support, and strengthening access to justice. The ILO standards as well as technical assistance and cooperation have provided important guidance to member States in developing a comprehensive policy response.

What we are seeking today
  • is to take a decisive step towards the ratification of C. 29 based on the solid progress China has been making in recent times with the Criminal Law and the Labour Contract Law; an increased awareness that effective action against forced labour goes beyond mere law enforcement and encompasses the measures set out in P. 29; and a renewed reflection on the value of certain basic civil and political liberties enshrined in the ILO Constitution and indirectly protected from forced labour in C. 105.
  • to clarify that the stakes involved in ratifying C. 29 are much bigger than the difficulties presented by a single sectoral issue such as the custody and education system;
  • to share the experience of a country that has been among the first to ratify P29 and in the process make a case for interagency coordination rather than a strict division of responsibilities between labour inspection services on the one hand and law enforcement agencies on the other hand;
  • to highlight the work that has been over the years by ILO to come to statistical terms with a difficult concept and that today may be of use to countries that are developing the statistical indicators measuring progress on SDG 8.7;
  • to highlight the fact that prevention of forced labour often starts with fair recruitment and the work ILO has undertaken to develop guidelines in that respect.
Wishing the workshop a great success.