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Forced labour in Africa: between poverty and tradition

The ILO estimate of the number of victims of forced labour in sub-Saharan Africa is 660,000. In this region, the figure reflects the stubborn survival of traditional forms of servitude, but also relates to extreme poverty, a high incidence of child labour, and a context of severe political violence. Where armed conflicts and ethnic tensions have flared, nations have been confronted with the forced recruitment of child soldiers, abductions, and enslavement of whole segments of their population. ILO online draws a picture of forced labour in Africa.

Article | 13 May 2005

KITGUM, Uganda - "We were assigned to kill people who had disobeyed instructions. To kill them with pangas, by cutting them to pieces", says Denis Oweka, a 13 year old boy. He was abducted at the age of seven, and has killed four of his former schoolmates. Now he goes to Pandwong Primary School in the outskirts of Kitgum, Uganda.

He tells us the story of three children, formerly abducted by rebels, who have been operating in northern Uganda for 19 years now. The three were turned into child soldiers at the age of ten, and made to kill several people for their own survival in the bush.

Of the three, two were girls given out to be "wives" to rebel commanders at the age of 11, following the completion of military training and deployment in war. One is now a child mother. The other girl did not conceive and is now back at school. The three eventually escaped from captivity following a government troops' ambush deep in the bush.

"Abduction in Kitgum has been rampant. At night on the 15th of March 2000, we were sleeping in our house. Then the rebels came and ordered us to open the door. We refused. Then they threatened to burn down the house. So, we opened and they abducted two of our children … and I could do nothing to stop it", explains Ochan John Odokonyero, Deputy Head Teacher of Pandwong Primary School where Denis Oweka goes to school.

The story of the children brings to light the link between child labour and forced labour in circumstances of war. It is estimated that about 20,000 children like Denis have been abducted by the insurgent Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The number of children involved in war all over Africa is reported to have reached a peak several years ago of about 120,000 ( Note 2).

On the other hand, Sudan, another case of civil conflict, illustrates the link between forced labour and discrimination based on ethnicity. Tensions between people of the northern and southern parts of the country led to the capturing of prisoners from the south, who were reduced to slavery unless a ransom was set for their release and paid. In May 2004, the Government of Sudan signed peace protocols with rebel groups, including a protocol on power-sharing, which contains provisions on the abolition of slavery. Nevertheless, there were continuing reports coming in on abductions and slavery in late 2004.

Forced labour, including that of children, has also been reported in post-conflict situations, in places such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, particularly in association with diamond and gold mining.

The weight of the past

People enter forced labour situations in Africa in a variety of ways. Victims often come from distinct ethnic or religious minorities, but forced labour can also be imposed by local authorities, including traditional chiefs.

"The legacy of the slave trade in Africa can make the recognition of contemporary forced labour especially difficult for those in positions of power as well as for the public at large. The linkage between "traditional" slavery and possible present-day forced labour is clearly a sensitive issue in Africa", says Roger Plant, main author of the global report on forced labour.

It is principally in the Sahelian countries of West Africa, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, that concern has been expressed about alleged ongoing slavery-like practices and discrimination against descendants of slaves.

A Government which has acknowledged the problem and started to address it is that of Niger, having recently adopted strong new legislation to outlaw slavery with high penalties provided for anyone convicted of holding slaves. The ILO's work in Niger led to a historic public commitment by the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger to combat forced labour and slavery.

Trafficking towards Europe of African women and girls for prostitution and pornography has prompted authorities into action. Several African countries are in the process of adopting legislation to punish offenders and protect victims. Programmes and policies often focus almost exclusively on trafficking for sexual exploitation, although the bulk of forced labour (80 per cent) in sub-Saharan Africa is imposed by private agents for economic exploitation.

Total annual profits generated by trafficked forced labour in Africa amount to US$ 159 million. There are extensive reports of children in Côte d'Ivoire being forced to work on plantations. This affects in particular certain ethnic groups within the country, as well as children from Mali and Burkina Faso; it has been estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 children from Mali are working on plantations in Côte d'Ivoire, and similar practices have been reported for Benin and Togo.

One-fifth of all forced labourers in Africa are victims of trafficking, but this number does not include Africans who are trafficked for work outside the continent. Nigerian women trafficked to Italy for prostitution and domestic service have stated that, on arrival in Italy, they are told that they owe 50,000 to 60,000 Euros for their travel and are subjected to physical and psychological violence if they fail to follow orders until their debt is repaid in full. Rituals are used to subdue the women and make them believe that they or their family members will die if they do not honour their debt.

Building on the Economic Community of West African States' (ECOWAS) initiative to eliminate human trafficking in West Africa, the ILO has partnered with governments, workers, employers and NGOs in Nigeria and Ghana to adopt and implement National Plans of Action against trafficking. Local communities are being mobilized to prevent fraudulent recruitment, to inform members of precautions to be taken while migrating, and to facilitate the social and economic reinsertion of returnees.

In Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo, an integrated approach to the elimination of child trafficking is being implemented. The programme combines awareness-raising campaigns for at-risk groups, community-level protection projects, law-enforcement capacity building, networking among social actors, broad-ranging rehabilitation and reintegration programmes as well as the provision of alternatives for children at risk and their parents.

Note 1

Note 2 - ILO, Wounded childhood: The use of children in armed conflict in Central Africa, Washington D.C., 2003.