21 Million Victims Worldwide; Governments Should Ratify New Standards
June 11, 2014
The fact that millions continue to be trapped in exploitative and dehumanizing conditions is a terrible stain on modern society. Governments should act quickly to ratify and implement this treaty to stop abuses, help identify and protect even the most hidden victims, and punish perpetrators.
Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher

(New York) – The adoption by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on June 11, 2014, of a landmark new treaty will advance the fight to prevent forced labor, and to protect and compensate the estimated 21 million victims worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments, trade unions, and employers’ organizations that make up the ILO overwhelmingly voted to adopt the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which updates a widely-ratified, but outdated, 1930 treaty in order to better address contemporary abuses, including against migrants and in the private sector.

Forced labor victims include those who have been trafficked or are in slavery-like conditions including in agriculture, domestic work, manufacturing, and the sex industry. Many victims work long hours in hazardous conditions for little or no pay, face psychological, physical, or sexual violence, and do not have the freedom to leave because of confinement, debt bondage, threats of retaliation, or other conditions.

“The fact that millions continue to be trapped in exploitative and dehumanizing conditions is a terrible stain on modern society,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should act quickly to ratify and implement this treaty to stop abuses, help identify and protect even the most hidden victims, and punish perpetrators.”

The ILO estimates that 55 percent of victims are female, 45 percent are male, and 26 percent of all victims are children. These abuses are often hidden from the public eye. The ILO estimates that those exacting forced labor make US$150 billion in illegal profits. Countries also lose billions of dollars in tax income and social security contributions.

The prevention measures in the new Forced Labor Protocol include creating national plans of action, expanding labor laws to sectors at risk of forced labor, improving labor inspections, and protecting migrant workers from exploitative recruitment practices. The new treaty also requires governments to support due diligence by businesses to prevent and respond to forced labor in their operations. The ILO estimates that 90 percent of forced labor takes place in the private economy.

The treaty requires governments to take measures to identify, release, and provide assistance to forced labor victims as well as protect them from retaliation.

Article 4 of the treaty also obligates governments to ensure that all victims, regardless of their legal status or presence in a country, have access to justice and remedies, including compensation, in the country where the abuse occurred. Currently, migrants who have irregular status or have returned home to their countries face huge barriers to making complaints to authorities, pursuing cases in court, or even obtaining unpaid wages due to restrictive immigration policies.

Article 4 also requires governments to ensure they have discretion not to prosecute victims of forced labor for unlawful activities – for example: immigration offenses, sex work, drug offenses, or violent crimes – that they may have been compelled to commit as a direct consequence of being in forced labor.

“Sadly, victims of forced labor are too often treated like criminals instead of people who are entitled to assistance,” said Varia. “Improving efforts to identify victims of forced labor in immigration and criminal proceedings so they can get appropriate help and avoid being doubly victimized is a key advance.”

The International Labour Organization’s Convention 29 on Forced Labor was adopted in 1930 and has been ratified by 177 countries. Its definition of forced labor and the requirement to make it a penal offense have become integrated into national and international standards. However, other provisions addressed forced labor in overseas colonies and are outdated. The new protocol modernizes Convention 29 by removing these provisions from the original treaty.

Governments must ratify the new protocol in order to become legally bound by its provisions. ILO members also negotiated a recommendation that provides non-binding legal guidance to governments. Key recommendations include collecting reliable data, addressing child labor, providing basic social security guarantees, eliminating the charging of recruitment fees to workers, and cooperating internationally to address the use of forced labor by diplomats.

Additional recommendations include a reflection and recovery period so migrant victims can temporarily stay in the country concerned before deciding on protection measures or legal action. The recommendation clarifies that legal entities can be held liable for forced labor, and should be subject to penalties such as confiscation of profits from forced labor or other assets.

Human Rights Watch representatives participated in the negotiations and pointed out that there were missed opportunities to strengthen key protections. Examples include provisions for governments to “support” businesses, rather than “requiring” them to take necessary measures on forced labor, including in their supply chains. Draft recommendations for governments to establish victim compensation funds and to provide assistance on the basis of a victim’s informed consent did not gain enough support for inclusion in the final text. The protocol and recommendation mention compensation for victims repeatedly, but as one potential remedy instead of as a requirement.

“The overall outcome of these negotiations is a strong treaty that governments should rally behind,” said Varia. “Forced labor involves some of the worst abuses we see today, and governments should act with great urgency to eliminate it and to support victims.”

Of 472 votes cast by governments, workers, and employers, 437 delegates voted for the convention, 8 voted against, and 27 abstained.

In the past decade, Human Rights Watch has published 49 reports on forced labor. They cover abuses such as forced begging by children; exploitation in domestic work, construction, agriculture, and mining; forced labor in prisons and drug detention centers; and indefinite conscription.