Forced labour affects 50 million people. ILO reports


Fifty million people were living in some form of forced labour in 2021, says ILO’s newest report, 10 million more than five years ago.

The “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery” was released this week. Almost simultaneously, it has been reported that the European Commission is expected to announce a ban on forced labour products – linked to allegations about this practice in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Similarly, in June, the US enacted a blanket ban on all imports, especially from that area, because of the alleged widespread human rights violations, particularly against Muslim Uyghur and other minorities.

The decline in human rights levels are global problems, enhanced by the recent crisis – from the pandemic to wars – clearly affecting trade and commercial relations among the world’s largest markets. According to ILO’s report, modern slavery occurs in almost every country, no matter its advancement. 52% is recorded in upper-middle or high-income countries; it cuts across religion, ethnicity and culture; and sensibly affects women and children more.

The processed data show that most cases of forced labour are reported in the private sector (86%). Forced commercial sexual exploitation reaches 23% (out of which 4 out of 5 are women or girls), other forms of slavery account for 63%, and 14% is state-imposed forced labour. Of all the modern slaves, 3.3 million are children, of which more than half are taken advantage of in commercial sexual exploitation or abuse.

Forced labour is defined by the 1930’s ILO Forced Labour Convention as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

ILO’s report outline it as any “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or cannot leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power”. Accordingly, it also considers the very dire aspect of forced marriage. As for 2021’s estimates, this practice affects around 22 million people worldwide. An increase of 6.6 million people since 2016. But, as the report admits, those numbers are most likely to be significantly underestimated.

It is difficult in fact to evaluate the true incidence of forced marriages, particularly those involving children younger than 16. Such practices are closely linked to patriarchal cultures and, by far, affected by family pressure. From the analysis, they appear more evident in Asia and the Pacific (65%). But, when considering regional population size, it is most prevalent in the Arab States, where 4.8 people out of 1000 are reported to be in forced marriages.

Focus on migrant people

The very vulnerable circumstances suffered by migrant people receive special attention. António Vitorino, the Director-General of the International Organization for Migrations, comments in plain letters, “This report underscores the urgency of ensuring that all migration is safe, orderly, and regular. Reducing the vulnerability of migrants to forced labour and trafficking in persons depends first and foremost on national policy and legal frameworks that respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants – and potential migrants – at all stages of the migration process, regardless of their migration status.”

ILO’s Director, Guy Ryder, echoes these words, discussing interventions needed to contain and change the trend. “We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulations are fundamental. But governments cannot do this alone. International standards provide a sound basis, and an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed. Trade unions, employers’ organizations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”

Global human progress has jumped back to 2016 levels, warns the UN Development Programme. And for the first time since its creation in 1990, the 2021/22 Human Development Index (HDI) has dropped for two consecutive years. Then, as crucial as acting on a national level is, it is not enough.

It is vital to improve and enforce laws and labour inspections. More robust measures preventing forced labour and human trafficking are needed. And extended and widely protecting social and legal platforms are to be implemented. Moreover, it is fundamental to actively tackle the issues affecting the most vulnerable, from migrants to women and children, starting, for example, by introducing and implementing fairer and more ethical recruitment processes and raising the minimum legal age for marriages to 18, without exception.


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