Global Policy Forum

Forced Labor Said to Bind 12.3 Million People Around the World


By Steven Greenhouse

New York Times
May 12, 2005


At least 12.3 million people worldwide work as slaves or in other forms of forced labor, the International Labor Organization, the labor arm of the United Nations, said in a report issued yesterday. In the first estimates of overall forced labor ever made by an international organization, the report said that 2.5 million people were in forced labor as a result of cross-border trafficking, with 1.2 million of them in the sex trade.

The report, "A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor," estimated that profits from trafficked forced labor totaled $32 billion a year, or $13,000 per trafficked worker. Profits from forced commercial sexual exploitation totaled $27.8 billion annually, or $23,000 per worker. "Forced labor represents the underside of globalization and denies people their basic rights and dignity," said Juan Somavia, the director general of the International Labor Organization.

Lee Swepston, one of the report's authors, said it was hard to determine whether the overall use of forced labor was increasing or decreasing since this was the agency's first estimate of the overall numbers. But he said that trafficking of workers was definitely on the upswing because international travel had grown easier, borders had been eased in many countries, especially in Europe, and many women were migrating, with traffickers preying on them in particular. "The 12.3 million figure is a minimum," Mr. Swepston also said. "It's a low figure intentionally. We think it's probably higher. This is what we can be confident of."

According to the report, 9.5 million of the forced laborers are in Asia, most of them forced into bonded labor because of debts, especially in Pakistan and India. About two-thirds of forced labor in Asia is imposed by private parties - families, farmers or companies. About one-tenth of Asia's forced labor is commercial sexual exploitation and one-fifth is imposed by the state in a few countries, most notably China and Myanmar, formerly Burma.

People can be forced into such labor in many ways - because of debts, through physical violence, by the confiscation of identity papers, by threatening to turn illegal immigrants over to the authorities. "The victims are drawn from lower castes in parts of Asia, indigenous peoples in Latin America, the descendants of slaves or forest-dwellers in Africa," the report says. "New forms of coercion often linked to indebtedness are being detected in a range of sectors and industries, such as brick making, mining, rice mills and domestic work."

The report estimated that there were 360,000 forced laborers in industrialized nations and 210,000 in the former Communist countries of Europe. In the industrialized countries, the report said, three-quarters of the forced laborers are in the sex trade, while the others are in work like apparel sweatshops. The report said there were 1.3 million forced laborers in Latin America and the Caribbean, 660,000 in sub-Saharan Africa and 260,000 in the Middle East and North Africa. Ninety-eight percent of forced laborers working in sexual activities are women and girls, the report said, while women and girls account for 56 percent of nonsexual forced labor.

To reduce trafficking, the report calls for stepped-up law enforcement in both sending and destination countries. It also urges agencies that seek to reduce poverty, like the World Bank, to make a priority of intervening in practices that foster bonded labor. The report also says countries may have to rethink labor, land, tenancy and migration policies that have produced forced labor.



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