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ILO’s New Global Estimate of Forced Labour

The Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour of the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently launched a technical report on the “New Global Estimate of Forced Labour.” According to the new estimate, which was developed to assist in the promotion of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its follow-up and in the design of global policies against forced labour, nearly 21 million persons are victims of this practice.

Forced labour is the term used by the international community to refer to situations in which the persons involved are obliged to work against their free will, coerced by their recruiter or employer through violence or threats. It also includes human trafficking or slavery-like practices as sexual exploitation.

Three ILO Conventions address this practice: Forced Labour Convention of 1930, the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention of 1957 and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention of 1999. The first two Conventions are almost universally approved and ratified which implies that most States have the legal obligation to respect the legal requirements of each Convention. However, the reality is often very different. It was not until 2005 that a political mobilization process was launched to fight forced labour, marked by the release of ILO’s Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (2005 ). The recently launched technical report completes and updates the available data of the Global Report.

According to the latest figures, women and girls represent 55% of the victims of forced labour. Moreover, whereas 90% of the victims are exploited in the private economy by individuals or enterprises, 56% are subjected to forced labour in their place of origin or residence and 26% are children. Although 56% of forced workers can be found in Asia, the prevalence rate (number of victims per thousand inhabitants) is higher in Central and South-Eastern Europe (4,2 victims per thousand inhabitants) and Africa (4 victims per thousand inhabitants). Forced labour also results from cross-border or internal displacement which increases workers’ vulnerability.

Three key trends can be observed when comparing data from 2005 and 2012: the number of victims of forced labour has increased from 12,3 million in 2005 to 20,9 million in 2012; State-imposed forced labour represents a lower proportion of the total (around 10%); and the age distribution of forced workers has changed with less children concerned.

The ILO cautions that it is impossible to actually compare the two estimates because, since 2005, there have been changes in the applied methodology, as well as improvements in the registration of cases of forced labour. This is mainly due to increased awareness and political mobilization, which helped improve the identification process of victims of forced labour. For example, between 2003 and 2008, Brazil organized several national actions to strengthen labour inspections, freeing thousands of forced workers. States, such as Mozambique and the United Republic of Tanzania, adopted legislation against human trafficking. The implementation of such legislation, however, remains often ineffective, allowing impunity to continue.

Despite this lack of comparability, it remains true that these latest ILO figures are more reliable and fill some of the gap in national data on the matter. The margin of error has significantly decreased, passing from 20% to 7%. Nevertheless, the nature of the practice of forced labour is “hidden and illegal,” and thus considerably limits the scope of the study. The estimates are based on secondary information (official statistics, NGO reports, press articles, etc.) and on national surveys conducted by local partners and independent researchers. A collection of “reported cases” of forced labour was compiled for statistic evaluation.

According to Beate Andrees, Head of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, the identification and prosecution of practices of forced labour and all related crimes should receive full political attention, especially as the global economic crisis can further provoke this practice and weaken previous progress made.

In the near future, the ILO is determined to expand on this study by examining modern forms of forced labour, as well as the profits generated by this activity.

To access to the ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012, please click here.