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Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking, 13-15 February 2008 - Passport wanted: combating human trafficking and forced labour

The biggest ever international conference on human trafficking represents a unique opportunity to forge a global alliance against this form of modern slavery. At least 2.4 million people are victims of trafficking for the purpose of forced labour around the world generating an estimated US$32 billion in annual profits. A recent study by the ILO and the Portuguese Government shows how the search for a better life can lead to labour exploitation and human trafficking of people in both developing and developed countries.

Article | 12 February 2008

LISBON, Portugal (ILO Online) – When “L” answered an advertisement in a Portuguese newspaper offering jobs in the Netherlands for 6 Euros an hour, she could hardly know that the dream of a better life would turn into a nightmarish scenario.

Shortly after arriving, she was forced to work in a menial job cutting roses in greenhouses, made to share a room with six other people, and when she complained, had her room searched. To make matters worse, a Turkish national from a temporary employment agency proposed she marry his nephew so he could obtain an EU passport. And in the end, she was never paid for her work.

Trafficking and labour exploitation are commonly seen as rooted in the poverty that characterizes some developing countries. But the case of L, a Portuguese national lured into exploitation by promises of a better job, illustrates how citizens of a developed country can also fall prey to deceitful practices.

Roger Plant, head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, says L’s experiences show two things: “First, this pinpoints the real danger that abusive recruitment practices can spill over to forced labour and trafficking. Secondly, trafficking remains a low-risk criminal enterprise generating US$ 32 billion in annual profits worldwide despite growing awareness and more effective law enforcement over the last years”.

While the study (Note 1) on Portugal cites similar examples of Portuguese workers trapped in forced labour situations in Spain, it also makes it clear that the brunt of human trafficking in Portugal involves trafficking and exploitation of people from developing countries in Lusophone Africa, Brazil and Eastern Europe.

In one case, a 16-year-old girl from Africa was invited by a Portuguese woman to live with her in Portugal with promises to the girl’s family of a better life for their daughter, an employment contract, an above-average salary and to help her settle in.

Instead, the girl had her documents confiscated as soon as she arrived in Portugal and was forced to work 15 hours a day with only a half-day rest during the week. Her employer later told her that her salary was being deposited into an account under her name, but she never saw the money.

After three years, the girl got in contact with the Portuguese Centre for the Support of Immigrants, but she soon abandoned its rehabilitation programme. The officer dealing with the case thinks she never managed to escape her employee.

Forging a global alliance against trafficking and forced labour

According to a new ILO report for the Vienna Forum on Human Trafficking, while 44 per cent, most women, men and children were trafficked for sexual exploitation, 32 per cent were trafficked into labour exploitation, and 25 per cent for a mixture of both. The ILO also estimates that half of the victims of trafficking are minors under 18.

The fight against trafficking is at the heart of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda.

“Trafficking violates the most basic rights of any person – the freedom from coercion at work, the freedom to set up associations and bargain collectively, and the freedom from discrimination at work”, explains Roger Plant.

These are among the four core principles enshrined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted by ILO member States in 1998. The Declaration is based on eight core Conventions, two of which are most closely related to trafficking (No. 29 on Forced Labour and No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour). Furthermore, the ILO’s Migrant Workers Conventions No. 97 and No. 143 provide a normative framework for the protection of migrant workers as well as trafficked victims.

The ILO is promoting a Global Alliance to achieve this, with partner agencies pooling their efforts to wipe out all forms of forced labour worldwide by 2015. In its numerous activities around the world, the ILO addresses trafficking from a labour market perspective seeking to eliminate the root causes, such as poverty, lack of employment and inefficient labour migration systems.

The ILO’s work in 12 countries of Central and West Africa has resulted in significant strengthening of national laws and policies against human trafficking as well as increased inter-State cooperation to curb trafficking in children. In Europe, the ILO has started a project in Albania, Moldova and Ukraine in 2004 contributing to the adoption of stronger laws on migration and strengthening national migration institutions and cooperation between source and destination countries. In China, an ILO capacity building project promotes safe migration for the more than 120 million migrants within China and those often undocumented workers emigrating from China.

As a tripartite organization, the ILO not only works with governments, but also consults and involves employers’ and workers’ organisations in its anti-trafficking activities.

The Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking is organized by the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) and involves six international organizations, including the ILO, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“This is a unique opportunity to forge a global alliance against human trafficking and wipe it out once and for all”, concludes Roger Plant.

Note 1 - Combating human trafficking and forced labour, by Sónia Pereira and João Vasconcelos, International Labour Office, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, Geneva, 2007.