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Coherence or fragmentation? Towards joint action against forced labour, human trafficking and slavery

created Apr 21, 2014 08:16 AM

By Beate Andrees, Head of Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour, ILO Geneva, 18 April 2014

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundred thousands of women and men from Asia were recruited to work on plantations, to build railways, roads and ports of the New World and in European colonies. Some were lured into promising jobs abroad, others were simply kidnapped. They signed contracts which kept them in bondage for years, some for the rest of their lives. Most never returned home and many perished during their journey or while working in dangerous and arduous conditions overseas. This abusive system of labour recruitment was called “indentured labour”; today, we call it trafficking in human beings.


Such is the change in international law and moral consciousness. What seemed acceptable 150 years ago is a crime today. With the adoption of the UN Protocol to Suppress, Prevent and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children in 2000, States agreed that the recruitment, transportation and receipt of persons for the purpose of exploitation, using deception, fraud or abuse, is a crime under international law. Victims have a right to receive protection, and states have an obligation to protect any person from becoming a victim of this crime. The Protocol has been rapidly ratified by a majority of UN member States, and as such, has joined the ranks of earlier international treaties that criminalize related practices, namely slavery and forced labour.

Trafficking, forced labour and slavery are distinct legal concepts but they have a great deal in common. Whenever persons are coerced into labour or services without their consent, their consent has been vitiated or they cannot leave an employment relationship without the risk of punishment, they are in forced labour as defined by ILO Convention No. 29. Forced labour is the main purpose of trafficking in persons, but trafficking can also occur for the purpose of organ removal. In international law, slavery implies a degree of ownership over another person. The common denominator of those legal concepts is human exploitation through various means of coercion.

International law criminalizes these practices, but approaches to their elimination differ. The Trafficking Protocol adopts a criminal justice approach, and most of its substantive provisions give detailed guidance as to how perpetrators should be brought behind bars, and how victims of such crimes should be protected. ILO’s Forced Labour Conventions, and arguably also the UN Slavery Conventions, seek to progressively eliminate systemic practices of forced labour and slavery. Those practices often concern entire communities, for example indigenous or tribal peoples, Scheduled Castes or descendants of former slaves. The discrimination of those groups and their lack of access to decent work require comprehensive solutions that go beyond the criminalization of those who benefit from their exploitation. Such an approach acknowledges that the elimination of forced labour goes hand in hand with the promotion of other fundamental labour and human rights.

The different UN and ILO treaties hence embody criminal justice, human rights and labour rights approaches. They complement each other and are mutually reinforcing. In the past, it often appeared as though trafficking, forced labour and slavery are distinct problems that are dealt with by different actors. It is however time to connect the dots and to move beyond fragmented approaches. We need to build on the comparative strengths of each treaty and the approach it takes.

Such a complementary approach is very much needed given the sheer scope and stubborn persistence of the problem. According to ILO’s most recent count in 2012, there are at least 21 million men, women and children in forced labour today, more than half of them are in Asia. In terms of prevalence, that is the number of victims per 1,000 inhabitants, Asia ranks third after Eastern Europe, including the Commonwealth of Independent States and Africa. Only a small fraction of victims is ever identified by law enforcement authorities or civil society organisations. According to UN data, law enforcement uncovered about 55,000 trafficking cases between 2010 and 2012.  The number of victims who ultimately receive justice is even smaller.

There are many reasons for this disappointing reality. First and foremost, it will take more time and efforts to strengthen national justice systems and to foster collaboration of law enforcement across borders. Second, measures to empower and protect people at risk often ignore socio-economic factors and are therefore ineffective. Third, stronger measures are required to get at the root of the problem. Everyone agrees that prevention is better than cure but most prevention measures do not go beyond raising the awareness of vulnerable populations. The stubborn persistence of forced labour in all regions of the word demonstrates that labour markets, if left unchecked, do not produce efficient and equitable outcomes. Prevention measures therefore have to address those failures which are often related to abusive labour recruitment and wage payment systems.

In 2013, ILO member States, workers and employers’ organisations agreed that additional measures are required to eliminate forced labour as a matter of urgency. They therefore decided to put the item on the agenda of the International Labour Conference in June this year with a view of setting supplementary standards. The proposals are to adopt a Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention No. 29, supplemented by a Recommendation, or a stand-alone Recommendation to strengthen action on prevention, protection and remedies.

Ultimately, the purpose of ILO standards is to promote social justice and to create a level playing field within the global economy. By adopting the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation, ILO member States, worker and employers agreed that competitive advantages cannot be gained on the expense of fundamental rights at work. Forced labour is the antithesis of the right to enjoy freedom at work. Those who traffic people, use forced labour or slavery-like practices make billions of dollars of illegal profits every year. Businesses that thrive on exacting forced labour are less productive and often tarnish the reputation of an entire industry. Communities that are subjected to forced labour remain poor for generations. Forced labour is bad for development, and it is bad for business too. Whatever we choose to call it - forced labour, trafficking or slavery – it is time to get at the root of the problem and to move beyond fragmented approaches.

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