Forced labour and globalisation

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST

IN 2001, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published a report that acknowledged the presence of forced labour and modern forms of slavery in the brave new world. It described human trafficking for forced labour as being the "underside of globalisation". One significant outcome of this report was that a Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour was approved by the ILO governing body.

Four years later, the ILO has come out with a second global report titled "A global alliance against forced labour", which reiterates much the same thing but also attempts to analyse the types of forced labour. Describing forced labour as one of the most hidden problems of our times, it claims to have a better understanding of the numbers involved, the characteristics, the gender and ethnic composition of forced labour the world over and so on. It details the symptoms and characteristics of the problem but stops short of addressing its ideological and political dimensions - both nationally as well as globally. It aims at having a "fairer kind of globalisation" where the abuses related to forced labour are eradicated. But the question is: how does one address the issue of fairness within a seemingly unfair paradigm? However, one thing is for certain - that forced labour has indeed gone up and a good proportion of it comprises women and children in both developed as well as developing countries. "Face up to forced labour and tackle the roots that are embedded in discrimination, deprivation and poverty," states the ILO report without going much into the politics of these problems.

Much of forced labour, states the report, occurs in the private sector. But what goes unstated here is that governments have ceased to be major employers of "labour" and have ceded that space to non-governmental private employers who have little scruples about violating labour laws. One of the outcomes of forced labour conditions is human trafficking and there is a body of evidence to suggest that women and children are the worst victims of this. In forced economic exploitation of labour, 56 per cent of the victims are women and girls while 44 per cent are men and boys. In forced commercial sexual exploitation, 98 per cent of the victims are women. But the most shocking fact is that children account for 40 to 50 per cent of all victims.

The estimated number of people working as forced labour globally is 12.3 million; the majority of them are victims of direct economic exploitation, such as bonded labour, forced domestic work, and forced labour in agriculture and in remote rural areas. Of this, 9.8 million are exploited by private agents, including over 2.4 million of them who are victims of human trafficking. Therefore the private-imposed form of forced labour dominates in both economic exploitation and commercial or sexual exploitation. The use of forced labour by the state is not very significant.

In the regional distribution of forced labour, the Asia and the Pacific regions take the lead, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, then Sub-Saharan Africa, the industrialised countries, West Asia and North Africa, and lastly, the transition countries. In every case, victims of economic exploitation by private agents constitute the bulk of forced labour. In Asia and the Pacific, almost two-thirds of the total forced labour is private-imposed. Around 20 per cent of the total forced labour in these regions is state-imposed, with Myanmar accounting for the bulk of such exploitation. Contrary to what is popularly believed, forced labour for commercial sexual exploitation makes up less than 10 per cent of the total forced labour in these regions. Apparently, the more direct form of economic exploitation prevails in these countries. Much of it probably just exists because of the deliberate unwillingness of the state to intervene. Even in West Asia and North Africa, the dominant form of exploitation is economic, as is the case in Sub-Saharan Africa. But in the transition economies and industrialised countries, the pattern of forced labour is very different. Here, the dominant form of forced labour relates to commercial sexual exploitation, though 23 per cent of the victims are coerced into non-sexual economic exploitation. Trafficking accounts for more than 75 per cent of the forced labour in industrialised countries and transition economies including West Asia and North Africa. Nearly 43 per cent of the victims of trafficking are meant for commercial sexual exploitation while 32 per cent are for economic exploitation.

THE significance of this report, despite its limitations in terms of pinning down the real causes of forced labour, is that it provides the first minimum global estimate of the numbers of people involved in forced labour, gives a picture of contemporary forms of forced labour, and lists the action to be taken to eradicate it. It reveals that there may be an overlap between the more ancient systems of bonded labour - serfdom and slavery perhaps - and the more recent expressions of human trafficking. But there is a fundamental distinction between the older forms and the newer ones. While the former may have some vestiges of the legacy of colonialism and hence could be "traditional" in their discrimination, the latter is modern, related to globalisation and migratory trends and very much linked to the search for what the report terms as "unlawful financial profits by a range of actors, some of them involved in organised crime".

The modern forms are global, found in all regions, including industrialised countries. Here cases of migrant workers in debt bondage have been reported in agriculture and labour-intensive activities such as food-processing, construction, garment industry and packaging. Trafficking of children, for deployment in begging, drug-dealing or the sex trade, is also a feature of industrialised countries. In the transition economies of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, migrant populations from Central Asia working in agricultural land and in mines are subjected to economic exploitation. The report notes that in developing countries, domestic workers, both child and adult, form the bulk of the exploited.

Despite most of the ILO member-states having ratified one or the other of its two forced labour conventions, forced labour is not defined by law in any detail in these countries. This makes it difficult for lawmakers and enforcers to identify and prosecute the offence. In fact, there have been very few prosecutions for forced labour offences anywhere in the world. The ILO defines forced labour as that kind of work or service that is exacted under the menace of a penalty and is undertaken involuntarily. According to the ILO, a forced labour situation is determined by the nature of the relationship between a person and his/her employer and not by the type of activity performed.

There are some basic facts, says the report, that have been arrived at after research and analysis and the creation of awareness on forced labour conditions. First, there is a broad spectrum of working conditions and practices, ranging from extreme exploitation including forced labour at one end to decent work and the full application of labour standards at the other. It says that the line dividing forced labour, in the strict legal sense, and poor working conditions is very thin. Where forced labour is legally defined, there are myriad ways in which employers deny workers the full enjoyment of their human and labour rights, particularly to minimum wages, by applying coercive and deceptive mechanisms.

What is surprising is that these practices prevail in industrialised as well as developing and transition countries. No part of the world seems to be untouched by the presence of forced labour or forced labour-like conditions.

Despite the informative details about the kinds of forced labour and the regional distribution of the same, there are some areas where the report could have dwelt in detail. For instance, much of the report focusses on the supply side of human trafficking while the demand side does not get much attention. However, it recognises that there might be a need for more awareness of the demand for forced labour in the destination countries - mainly the industrialised nations. However, going by the thrust of the report, it would appear as if much of the problem is caused by and lies within the developing countries. There is not much analysis of the intrusive nature of international and transnational capital that may have contributed to forced labour in these countries.

While the "private agencies" have been held responsible for much of the misery, there is not much detail on who these private agencies are and why they are able to get away with impunity. There is not much introspection regarding the impact of global policies on developing nations as well as the inequities within developing countries, which are a direct outcome of policy. There is hardly any reference to the myriad conditions imposed by international financial institutions on developing countries, which have pushed more and more people into poverty. More important, there is hardly any cogent explanation as to why agencies such as the ILO feel quite helpless in the face of such devastating changes.

The report will be discussed at the 93rd session of the International Labour Conference to be held this year; a high-level international meeting would be held in 2006 at the ILO headquarters to launch a concerted initiative against forced labour. But any action plan that does not take into account the new global realities and the impact of the dominance of the market over everything else could end up as an incomplete one.

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