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Making history: The journey to modernize action against forced labour

created Jun 29, 2014 09:09 PM


By Thetis Mangahas, Deputy Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 27 June 2014

The 2014 International Labor Conference (ILC) stands out in my mind primarily with the adoption of the Forced Labor Protocol and its Supplementary Measures Recommendation. The new instruments constitute a major advance in the world’s movement against forced labor and its modern forms, more importantly as it targets the structural factors that make workers vulnerable to forced labor. The overwhelming number of positive votes at the ILC 2014 represents a strong endorsement of ILO’s global mandate on forced labour. Interestingly, the endorsement for the new Protocol and Recommendation supersedes the milestone convention on domestic workers in terms of the number of votes.


Though I went to the Conference to support the Regional Director and also undertake an assignment on the implementation of ILO internal reform measures, I had the happy privilege to witness at least 3 key forced labour committee sessions – on the decision to formulate both the protocol and a recommendation, on the adoption of the final language of the two instruments; and finally, the plenary voting. It was also gratifying to see Piyamal Pichaiwongse of the ILO Myanmar Liaison Office serve as an expert in the forced labour committee. Observing these three events personally reaffirmed the value of the ILC at its best - in forging compromise, consensus, and commitment. Despite initially divergent positions – several countries and employers’ groups had intended to support only a recommendation – the final conference vote demonstrated near-consensus on measures to prevent and eliminate the use of forced labour, including on protections for those vulnerable, on ensuring workers’ access to remedies and compensation and, ultimately, on sanctioning perpetrators. The ILO instruments go far in specifying the structural factors that make workers vulnerable to forced labor - inadequate protection in labor law, absent or insufficient labor inspection, and the continuing inability to regulate abusive recruitment and provide supervised channels for safe and legal migration.


On a personal level, the adoption of the new protocol at the ILC validates, to a very large extent, the vision and purpose in establishing the office’s concerted efforts in 2002 to refocus overall ILO action on forced labor, from state-sanctioned forms (such as forced prison labor and state recruitment into the military), bonded labor and to work against forced labor in new workplace settings – domestic work, fishing, informal manufacturing. At that time, the Governing Body approved the creation of the Special Action Program on Forced Labor, as a response to the groundbreaking ILC conference report “Stopping forced labour” in 2001. I joined this team of three specialists based in Geneva, Roger Plant as head of the program, Caroline O’Reilly, a specialist on bonded labor, particularly South Asia, and I work on human trafficking with special attention on migrant labor and domestic work. The team pursued its tasks with a special sense of mission, undertaking almost immediately an investigative research program on the diverse aspects of forced labor in bonded labor, human trafficking, forced aspects of domestic work, rural servitude and forced prison labor.


In the early stages of the program, global discussions on human trafficking centered almost exclusively on prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation. Pro-forma project interventions concentrated on border and immigration control and advocacy for stronger criminal law enforcement. There was little, if any, discussion on interventions focused on the labor market.   So a new program calling for labor market interventions including changes in labor policy, intensified training of business entrepreneurs and trade unionists, and setting up pilot programs on labor inspection was often met with raised eyebrows and obvious skepticism. It was not rare to receive harsh questions on ILO motives, challenging the usefulness of the proposed interventions. Accusations were often intense, arguing that the ILO was diverting attention away from sexual exploitation and the commercial sex sector, where coercion was most blatant. Speaking on the necessity of addressing forced labor dimensions in both origin and destination countries of migrant labor, I faced cynical responses nearly everywhere, including in many so-called expert circles.


Field projects provided the most direct validation of the reality of forced labor in its various forms.  Managing an Asian program on the trafficking in children and women (TICW) in the Greater Mekong Sub-region was for me an opportunity to try new approaches on verifying and acting on forced and child labor resulting from growing internal and cross-border migration in the sub-region. “The Mekong Challenge”, TICW’s landmark 2006 publication, identified fishing, domestic work and family farm labor as key economic sectors vulnerable to forced labor, and questioned prevailing private sector practices of restraining workers’ movements, confiscation of identity documents such as passports, denial of days-off and imposing forced overtime. The project also tested different types of labor market interventions – drop-in complaints centers, public opinion campaigns, revision of recruitment law and regulation, and targeted labor inspections.


As a project named to act specifically against the trafficking of women and children, it was especially satisfying to point to the severe exploitation of men in fishing vessels and construction sites.


As we fast forward to June 2014, we discover that committee discussions are no longer questioning the existence of forced and compulsory labor in both its old (yes, state sanctioned forced labour still exists!) and its new forms (no, there is no denying the truth). As the conference was starting to vote, I stood on the 2nd floor of the Assembly Hall of the UN Palais des Nations cheering along with young colleagues working on forced and child labor, human trafficking and irregular migration. Together, we felt a wonderful sense of ILO history being made.


But, much more needs to be done. Asia and the Pacific is home to half of the world’s victims of forced labor and there is very little room for complacency. Progress is so easily set back and reversed, so international, national and local scrutiny will be needed for years to come. But for the moment, let’s take a moment to celebrate.

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