This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Modern forms of slavery in industrialized countries

A new report by the ILO estimates that more than 12 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour. But this modern day form of slavery is not restricted to developing countries, and can also be found in industrialized countries, where approximately 360,000 people are forced to work. Two examples of this practice are migrant workers in the German meat industry, and fruit pickers in Florida, United States.

Article | 11 May 2005

IMMOKALEE, Florida, United States - It is 4:30 in the morning. Night still hangs over the tiny town of Immokalee, Florida, but the road is lined with men in mangled work boots walking half-asleep towards a parking lot full of buses. They will take them, along dusty roads, to a tomato farm.

Inside a dark trailer, a man pulls on his boots and gets ready for work. "My name is Luis. I am from Guatemala. Every morning at 4:30 I go to pick fruit. The work is very hard and pays very little", he says.

Luis shares a small trailer with 13 other men so he can save enough money to send to his family in Guatemala. The men sleep four to a bed but consider themselves lucky because they have basic electricity and plumbing.

But some of their fellow workers do not feel as lucky when it comes to working in the fields; "There were guards in the fields with guns. The workers were being watched all the time and they were beaten if they tried to leave", says Lucas Benitez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Lucas Benitez helped organize the Coalition of Immokalee Workers when he realized many of his co-workers were being held as bonded labourers. Lured by salaries that far outstrip what they could ever make in their home countries, workers like Luis can be trapped by debts owed to their contractors.

"Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers are trafficked into this country to work as forced labourers. If those numbers aren't shocking, I don't know what is", comments Carlos Castillo from the Department of Justice in Miami, Florida.

In the last three years, the US Department of Justice has been able to prosecute increasing numbers of cases under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and develop regional anti-trafficking task forces in states like Florida. But according to the latest ILO global report on forced labour, the complex chains of contracting and sub-contracting can affect major retail companies who do not realize the conditions under which their produce is being supplied.

After two years of negotiation, Yum Brands, the largest restaurant company in the world - owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and other fast food chains - agreed to join with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to improve wages and conditions of workers. The agreement with Taco Bell, whereby they pay one penny more, is very important, but it is the code of conduct the union and the company agreed on that will help end cases of abuse.

Migrant workers in the German meat industry

Workers in Romanian abattoirs have the same skills as their German colleagues but work for a fraction of their wages. With the opening up of Eastern Europe, they have been travelling to Germany in thousands. In Oldenburg, the centre of the German meat industry, unscrupulous middlemen bring migrant workers to big slaughterhouses. Some work for just 3 Euros an hour - a German worker would expect four times that amount.

As the Romanians went on strike when they did not receive the wages they had been promised, their employer sent men around to beat them up. "They hit the door, they threw me down, they kicked me. I was sitting on the chair, they hit me. Look, this tooth, one is missing, and the other one is wobbly", says Daniel Kincza, one of the victims.

Wilfried Ideke, the owner of the slaughterhouse, was sentenced to three years imprisonment for trafficking and employing workers illegally. The Romanian workers' case came to light because they took it to a union and went to court. According to the unions, this was not an isolated incident.

"It is modern day slavery we're talking about: traffickers, middlemen who send employees here to Germany who are not fully informed about their job. Often there is no possibility of finding out more because they don't know the language. When they are drawing up the contract, they are lying to the workers", explains Markus Dieterich from the German food industry union NGG.

Most Romanians have now left the German meat industry, as a bilateral agreement between Romania and Germany has come to an end. Today, the cars outside the meat processing factory - which has been taken over by a Danish company - are mostly Polish. An anonymous poster on a tree calls on butchers to protest against cheap foreign labour taking German jobs…

"Consumers want to buy meat and tomatoes at ever-lower prices. Most of them are unaware their meat has been prepared by migrant workers facing exploitation far from home", says Roger Plant, main author of the report. "A global alliance against forced labour must now be forged to ensure that this gross violation of the rights of women and men across the world is finally relegated to history."

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.