Victims of forced labour lose over $20 billion per year in earnings, finds UN study

12 May 2009

Victims of forced labour lose an estimated $20 billion ever year in unpaid earnings, according to a new report by the United Nations labour agency, which calls for increased action to eradicate the scourge.

The report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), entitled “The Cost of Coercion,” also details the growing number of unethical, fraudulent and criminal practices that can lead people into situations of forced labour, and charts progress in tackling the crime.

“Forced labour is the antithesis of decent work,” said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. “It causes untold human suffering and steals from its victims. Modern forced labour can be eradicated, providing there is a sustained commitment by the international community, working together with government, employers, workers and civil society.”

The report estimates that the “opportunity cost” of coercion to the workers affected by these abusive practices, in terms of lost earnings, now reaches over $20 billion. “This presents a powerful economic argument, as well as a moral imperative, as to why governments must now accord higher priority to these concerns,” the agency stated in a news release.

Based on a 2005 ILO study, at least 12.3 million people worldwide were in some form of forced labour or bondage, of which 8.1 million were exploited by private agents, outside the sex industry.

“Our main concern is with the human cost of coercion, both to the victims and their families in terms of the untold misery they endure through forced labour, and to society at large,” said Roger Plant, head of ILO’s Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour.

“In the midst of a global economic and financial crisis, in which there is a real risk that the poorest and most vulnerable will bear most of the cost, we want to draw public attention to a less publicized but equally serious crisis on labour markets,” he stated.

The current report shows a mixed picture of global efforts to combat forced labour. While most countries have introduced legislation that deals with forced labour as a criminal offence and the issue itself is no longer hidden or taboo, others are finding it difficult to identify cases of abuse, let alone define the adequate policy responses.

“We must never forget that forced labour is a serious criminal offence that requires criminal punishment” said Mr. Plant.

“But we must also remember that forced labour is often poorly defined in national legislation, making it difficult to address the multiple subtle ways in which workers can be denied their freedom. The challenge is to address these problems in an integrated way, through prevention and law enforcement, using both labour and criminal justice.”


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