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New Statistics on ‘Modern-day Slavery’ Reveal a Shameful and Profitable Business

Jocalyn Clark analyses the ILO’s shocking recent report that ‘modern-day slavery’ generates billions of dollars globally each year.

Image credit: Bark, Flickr
Image credit: Bark, Flickr

When updated estimates increase three-fold, one tends to take notice. This is what happened to many I suspect when the International Labour Office (ILO) reported last week that forced labour, child labour, and sexual exploitation generate a massive US$150 billion each year, three times its previous estimate in 2005. Nearly two-thirds of the estimated profits come from sexual exploitation, including prostitution and pornography.

Twenty-one million men, women and children around the world are economically and sexually exploited by employers, trafficked, held in debt bondage or work in slave-like conditions, according to the report. Female victims are usually trafficked in commercial sex and domestic work, and men typically in forced labour in the agriculture, construction and mining sectors. That these victims are said to “generate billions of profits annually” is interesting use of language – of course, these modern-day slaves are generating profits for others and doing so under the forced and exploitative direction of others. Worse, this illegal activity helps fuel the world’s economy.

As The Economist wrote with its infographic, “The idea of treating other humans like chattel seems as antiquated as it is barbaric. But it is big business.” The Asia-Pacific region was found to profit the most overall from these exploitative practices, but ‘per victim’ the European Union and other developed nations derive the highest profit – nearly $35,000 annually. Emphasizing that this is not an issue of poor countries alone, the ILO estimated 880,000 victims of forced labour in the European Union.

Part of the problem is that forced labour, sexual exploitation, and child labour are tolerated in countries all over the world.

The international convention against forced labor, now ratified by 177 countries, has been active since 1930, but many countries do not enforce it.  Even in areas where regulation exists, such as in India, the practice of forced labour is accepted. In regions like the Gulf States, regulations permit employers to exploit labour. While globalization has allowed workers to seek better employment opportunities in more developed countries, it can leave them vulnerable to exploitation in regions where workers’ rights are not respected or where practices that ILO categorizes as ‘slave labour’ are not perceived as such, says the report. And there is an inextricable link between poverty and forced labour – if people are economically impoverished they will be more vulnerable to exploitation.

So while the ILO director-general is quoted as saying “it’s time that we act together to eradicate this fundamentally evil source of shame once and for all,” it must be understood that the practice is massively profitable for businesses, which may stand in the way of needed action.  The ILO’s recommendations – working with governments to strengthen law, policy and enforcement, with employers to strengthen their due diligence against forced labour including in supply chains, and with trade unions to represent and empower those at risk – will produce results only with systematic change within the economic system and labour markets, and with binding human rights protection.

It will also help for governments and private companies to act on recognition that forced labour is illegal, unethical, and bad for business. States lose billions in tax income and social security contributions, for example, and increased public awareness of any exploitation of workers will damage the reputations of companies. One observer said we need to “name and shame” countries and companies that condone the practice.

Putting a price tag on a problem, as the ILO report did this week, is always a powerful tool. Let’s hope these new numbers spur action for change.

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