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Global Report on Forced Labour In Asia: debt bondage, trafficking and state-imposed forced labour

With an estimated 9.5 million, the Asia and Pacific region claims the highest number of people among the estimated 12.3 million victims of forced labour in the world today. The region is struggling against both traditional and newer forms of forced labour. An 8.1 million people are trapped in forced labour by means other than trafficking, primarily through debt bondage. But the region is also home to state-imposed forced labour in Myanmar. ILO online reviews the tragic reality of forced labour in Asia.

Article | 18 May 2005

BANGKOK - Bonded labour is the main form of forced labour in the region, affecting mainly the South Asian countries of India, Nepal and Pakistan. It usually begins when poor people have no option but to take a loan or wage advance from their employer to cover emergency or major social expenditures. They subsequently find it impossible to repay for a combination of reasons, including high interest rates, low pay, and over-inflated prices for agricultural or other essential production inputs provided by the landlord or employer.

Illiteracy compounds the problem, as debtors are unable to keep or verify records of the loan payments they have made, and in most cases no written contract exists in the first place. Violence and threats of violence can be used to enforce the bond, or more subtle strategies such as exclusion from future employment. In the worst of cases, children can be bonded independently of their families, or they inherit their parents' debts.

Older manifestations of bonded labour are transmuting into newer ones, which - although still widespread in its traditional stronghold of agriculture - is increasingly found in other sectors such as domestic service, brick-kilns, rice-mills, mining and quarrying, and carpet-weaving.

The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan have all enacted legislation to outlaw bonded labour systems, and have had varying degrees of success. Around 18,000 identified former "Kamaiyas" in Nepal have received some rehabilitation, including land and housing materials for the poorest, as well as a range of other support such as vocational skills training and access to microcredit. At the moment, however, the political situation in Nepal is an impediment to ILO programmes there.

In India, the government's "centrally sponsored scheme" provides financial or in-kind grants to released bonded labourers and their family members; over 285,000 people have benefited to date. Almost 5,000 prosecutions have been recorded so far under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976. Pakistan adopted, in 2001, its National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour, which provides the framework for attacking the problem, mostly in agriculture and brick-kilns in Sindh and Punjab Provinces.

Other forms of forced labour

Trafficking for forced commercial sexual exploitation is growing, but with 1.4 million people concerned it makes up less than 10 per cent of the total. Annual profit generated by trafficked forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region is estimated at US$ 9.7 billion. The economic disparities in the Mekong sub-region fuel the trafficking of women and children from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia towards Thailand. Women and children from Indonesia and the Philippines are trafficked into forced commercial sex work in destination countries such as Australia, China, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, China.

The incidence of forced labour among domestic workers trafficked from these countries to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong SAR is high. In Japan and Australia, for example, women have entered the country legally under "entertainment" visas, with the expectation of working in dance clubs, only to find themselves forced into providing sexual services.

In China, massive internal migration from rural to urban areas puts many young women and girls, in particular, at high risk for labour and sexual exploitation. Many Chinese migrants are also susceptible to smuggling and trafficking into ethnic business enclaves in Europe and North America, where they become trapped in slavery-like conditions in sweatshops, in restaurants, and under the premise of domestic work.

Root causes of trafficking and irregular migration include poverty, indebtedness, and limited educational and employment opportunities in rural communities of origin, social exclusion and the lure of the big cities. Some women and children are sold into the sex trade, while others are trafficked for domestic or seasonal agricultural work, or begging and soliciting.

The "Bali Process" was initiated by the governments of Australia and Indonesia to develop practical measures at a regional level against trafficking and smuggling. The process has thus moved from one of merely enunciating principles to one of implementing more practical measures, and there has also been a recent change of focus from the interception of smuggling towards the prevention of trafficking and the protection of victims.

In China, there have been well-publicized arrests and prosecutions of leaders of trafficking networks, and a toughening of penalties. Between 2001 and 2003, the government investigated over 20,000 cases, in which 43,215 women and children were rescued and 22,018 traffickers arrested. Government action is also underway to prevent illegal emigration for work abroad by cracking down on hundreds of unregistered labour intermediary agencies.

About 20 per cent of forced labour (affecting approximately 1.9 million people) is state-imposed and concentrated in a few countries. In Myanmar, labour is required on a large scale from villagers - including men, women, children and the elderly - for a range of purpose including cultivation, portering, sentry duty, and road or bridge construction and repairs. If villagers refuse to comply with orders, they can be subject to threats, imprisonment and violence.

"The Myanmar case demonstrates that it is impossible to make effective progress against forced labour when there is a climate of impunity and repression against persons who denounce forced labour abuses", comments Roger Plant, the main author of the global report on forced labour.

As they are not recognized as workers, and deprived of labour rights in Asian countries, domestic workers may also be subjected to forced labour. To remedy this situation, both the Philippines and Indonesia now have bills that provide for a minimum wage for domestic workers, as well as for working hours and benefits similar to those for workers in other sectors. Japan has recently embarked on a series of measures to eradicate the exploitation of migrant and trafficked women, including strict enforcement of the rules for entertainment visas, financial assistance for victims to return home, and intensified cooperation with origin countries.

The ILO is both helping Indonesia and the Philippines strengthen the outreach of domestic workers' organizations, and creating linkages with organizations of migrant workers in the neighbouring destination countries of Malaysia and Hong Kong SAR. In the Mekong Delta region, the ILO Mekong Trafficking Project is working to prevent ill-prepared migration of vulnerable groups like women and children who are easier to steer into forced labour through human trafficking.

Through technical cooperation projects in India, Pakistan and Nepal, the ILO is addressing bonded labour and assisting the governments in providing effective rehabilitation for released bonded families, targeting specific needs of the poorest-of-the-poor, especially women, who are most vulnerable to debt traps. An important aspect is work with microfinance institutions to help them develop and offer specially adapted savings, loans and other financial services like life insurance, so that families no longer need turn to their employers or landlords for loans. The current political situation in Nepal, however, is a serious impediment to effective action.

A major ILO initiative to prevent trafficking in women and girls between Cambodia, Yunan Province of China, Viet Nam, Lao People's Democratic Republic and Thailand has contributed towards reducing the vulnerability of girls and young women to trafficking by warning them of the dangers of ill-informed migration. It encourages them to participate actively in developing solutions to the problems in their communities of origin that give rise to this migration in the first place.

In China, a new ILO project aims to enhance the capacity of the government and labour institutions to address the law enforcement aspects of trafficking. The project includes data gathering, victim identification, and law and policy-related activities in selected provinces of high out-migration. In Viet Nam, the ILO has provided technical support to an Inter-Ministerial Task Force on forced labour, established to review forced labour concerns in law and practice, and to oversee a comprehensive review of forced labour in the country.

The process has succeeded in mobilizing a wide range of government departments under the leadership of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, building consensus on forced labour and the relevance to Viet Nam of eliminating forced labour. In Mongolia, possible forced labour practices have been examined, including forced overtime in manufacturing, and placing prisoners at the disposal of private companies in the textile and garment industries.

Note 1 - A global alliance against forced labour, Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 2005, International Labour Office, Geneva. ISBN 92-2-115360-6. Price: 35 Swiss Francs.