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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le travail forcé : plaie purulente de la mondialisation

by Ramine Abadie

Forced labour: the gaping wound of neo-liberal globalisation

Translated Sunday 30 August 2009, by Karen Grimwade and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Exploitation. Children, immigrants or prisoners, a report by the International Labour Organisation estimates that at least 12 million people are the victims of a kind of modern slavery.

Special report from Geneva.

World Cup footballs made for a major European sports equipment brand by Pakistani children who have been sold or loaned out by their parents, consumer goods made under coercion by tens of thousands of Chinese prisoners, or the hundreds of thousands of women working in more or less illegal textile sweatshops around the world, or pushed into, then prevented from leaving, the sex industry…

In its various and abhorrent forms, forced labour, whose victims number in the millions, has become the scourge of the modern world. In connection with the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (23 August), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and its Office have thrown the spotlight on the problem once again. In a new report [1] – published in the form of a book for the general public – that follows on from a first evaluation made in 2005, the ILO has once again sounded the alarm and hopes to push Member States to commit themselves further to fighting against the modern aspects of this phenomenon.

A major increase

According to ILO’s experts, although “national” forms of modern slavery (i.e. those within a country, such as the forced labour of social groups, inferior castes or oppressed ethnic minorities) may appear to be on the decline, international and cross-border forms of forced labour, on the other hand, are seeing a major increase. Furthermore, the problems are even pricklier, for both experts and legislation, due to the fact that exploitation and illegal work do not directly equate with forced labour.

“The International Labour Office’s definition of forced labour implies coercion comprising two basic elements, namely that the work or service is exacted under the menace of a penalty and it is undertaken involuntarily. However, there are several ways of denying someone their freedom. Many people unwittingly commit themselves to working as forced labour, through fraud or deception, only to discover later that they are not free to leave their job”, explains Roger Plant, Head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour [2].

Until new data is available the ILO relies on its 2005 estimate (which its experts believe to be largely underestimated) to show the extent of the problem. This estimate shows that at least 12.3 million people worldwide are the victims of some kind of forced labour or slavery, 80% of whom are exploited by the private economy (and 11% by the sex industry). And there is no doubt that the nightmare of forced labour brings huge profits for the network of recruiters, middlemen and employers. Such illegal revenues are said to total approximately 25 billion euros (two thirds of which are generated by the sex industry alone).

Coordinated action

The ILO says that in highlighting the problem it has two objectives: “to call attention to the new problems of forced labour in the modern world, and in particular those problems that result from human trafficking”, and also to set out “an agenda for coordinated national and international action by highlighting the role of immigrant protection, labour ministries and inspectorates, employer’s organisations and unions, as well as work to ensure labour law is respected.”

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