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The price of modern slavery

May 12, 2009

Forced labour worldwide amounts to over $20 billion, in terms of lost earnings, says ILO’s new report: The Cost of Coercion. The report presents a new perspective on this insidious practice and suggests implementing integrated policies and programmes to empower those at risk.

The Cost of Coercion

Publisher: International Labour Organization (ILO), 2009

At a time of growing economic and financial crisis, the aftershocks can have a particularly negative impact on the most vulnerable groups, including women, children, migrant workers, indigenous peoples and others least covered by social protection systems.

ILO’s Global Report on Forced Labour (2005) pointed out that 12.3 million people worldwide were in some form of forced labour or bondage. Out of this, 9.4 million were found in Asia.

Four years hence, despite key provisions of ILO Conventions on private employment agencies and the protection of migrant workers, there is a need for more consensus and clearer guidelines on issues such as fee charging, contracts of employment, or the rights of short term migrants to change jobs and negotiate terms of employment.

The report sheds new light on forced labour, including the forced labour that results from trafficking in persons, in the rapidly changing world economy. A key message is that, to avoid an expansion of forced labour and trafficking, governments must give similar attention to the crisis on labour markets as they are now doing to crisis on financial markets.

It estimates that the “opportunity cost” of coercion to the workers affected by these abusive practices, in terms of lost earnings, now reaches over $20 billion. This presents a powerful economic argument, as well as a moral imperative, as to why governments must now accord higher priority to these concerns.

In Asia, issues of particular concern are the persistence of bonded labour systems, despite longstanding legislation to prevent and punish these practices; the widespread incidence of trafficking for both sexual and labour exploitation; and the persistence of forced labour exacted directly by the state and official institutions in a country such as Myanmar.

In China, detection of different forced labour concerns in the emerging private economy has prompted law and policy reforms. In India, a cooperative programme between the ILO and the government seeks to address bonded labour problems through regulating systems of advance payments to workers, among other measures.

As an ever larger number of countries legislate against human trafficking for labour or sexual exploitation, it is becoming essential to help judges and law enforcement agents identify what constitutes the criminal act of forced labour in the private economy, and to punish this accordingly.

The report proposes a global action plan with a determination of regional priorities:

  • Improved data collection and research
  • An intensified global awareness campaign, for example encouraging public support for local and international efforts to fight trafficking for labour as well as sexual exploitation and facilitating high-profile debates on both the causes of modern forced labour and the best means to address it
  • Improving law enforcement and labour justice responses, mainly by seeking more involvement of labour administration and labour inspectors in integrated action against forced labour; and strengthening the engagement of employers’ and workers’ organisations in action against forced labour and trafficking.
  • Where forced labour continues to exist in a context of poverty and discrimination, there should be a focus on better prevention strategies, including the targeting of poverty reduction programmes and development resources at the communities most in need.
  • There should be intensified cooperation between sender and destination countries for these vulnerable workers. Emphasis can be placed on better-regulated recruitment mechanisms, and improved monitoring. Furthermore, public-private partnerships can help ensure that employers and workers are fully engaged with government efforts to improve systems of labour contracting and job placement.
Source : ILO
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