Today’s global economy conceals a vicious, virtually invisible underworld of modern-day slavery. More than a century since most of the industrialized world outlawed slavery, more than 21 million workers toil in conditions of forced labor. These workers are generally the poorest among us, with the fewest opportunities. They can be found in fields, mines and factories in distant lands or down the street in a local restaurant or in a neighbor’s home—and their collective work generates a growing illegal profit of more than $150 billion.
According to the International Labor Organization's (ILO's) groundbreaking new report, Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor, the sheer scope and the root economic and social causes of forced labor are very much a product of rampant poverty and a lack of decent work. Poor people who have little access to jobs, education and social safety nets are at a much greater risk of ending up in forced labor. Often, when workers attempt to improve their economic conditions, exploitative actors and criminal rings lure them into exploitative conditions with the promise of good jobs. Their search ends in debt, isolation and physical, verbal and economic coercion. Nearly half of those in forced labor are migrant workers, who—far from home—frequently have their travel documents confiscated by employers and lack the resources to navigate complex legal channels to seek help.
Additionally, some 90% of forced labor occurs in the private sector. It occurs in every sector of the economy, with the most profits generated through sexual exploitation; construction, manufacturing and mining; agriculture and domestic work. Unfortunately, with growing profitability, there is a risk that forced labor will only grow in scale.
In 1930, the world made a commitment to end forced labor by adopting the ILO Forced Labor Convention (C29). C29 was designed to address forced labor in overseas colonial territories. Over the years, forced labor has changed in nature and size and new challenges have emerged. New international instruments must be created to address modern forms of economic coercion and forced labor in the private sector, in migration processes, in private homes, local businesses and multinational supply chains. Through binding international regulations, governments must be held responsible for creating enhanced prevention, protection and compensation measures for forced labor.
Next week, the international community will have a chance to take action. Unions, employers and world leaders will meet in Geneva for the 2014 International Labor Conference of the ILO, where they will negotiate the terms of a new binding instrument, a Protocol to the ILO Forced Labor Convention. This is a unique opportunity to increase international regulations and refocus international efforts to target the root causes of forced labor.
Governments from around the world need to hear from you. Call on your Department of Labor to support a strong Protocol to the ILO Forced Labor Convention.