Can we define jobs as modern slavery

International Labor Organization

Whether we want to admit it or not: Our world is full of products and services that are manufactured or offered under duress. Human trafficking, forced labor and child labor exist across borders and in almost all industries, above all in housekeeping, agriculture, the construction sector, manufacturing and prostitution.

Forced labor means any work or service that is required of a person against his or her free will and under threat of punishment. The means of coercion can be obvious, like the use of physical force, but also more subtle, for example through deception, threats or the manipulation of wages. Forced work can also take various forms. Debt bondage, which is still widespread in parts of the world, is a form similar to slavery: because of a debt, for example through an advance payment or a loan, those affected have to "work off" their debts under the conditions of bondage, sometimes on undefined time.

Not an exclusive problem for developing countries

When it comes to forced labor, we are basically dealing with a global phenomenon: Almost 21 million people are affected by it, according to ILO surveys. Most of them are in the Asia-Pacific region (11.7 million people), Africa (3.7 million) and Latin America (1.8 million). However, a total of 1.5 million people are also employed under duress in North America, the European Union, Japan and Australia. For Europe itself, the number is estimated at 800,000. In Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) there are a further 1.6 million. Women are disproportionately affected compared to men. In addition, migrant workers and indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable groups.

In addition, there is the persistently widespread child labor, for example in cotton production, the cultivation of coffee beans or the mining of coltan for cell phones. According to the ILO report “Marking progress against child labor - Global estimates and trends 2000-2012”, 168 million children worldwide are still precariously employed. Of these, more than half (85 million) work in the worst forms, which directly endanger health and mental development. 44 percent of child laborers (73 million) are only between 5 and 11 years old. A considerable proportion of the children also work under forced labor - an estimated one quarter of the world's forced laborers are under 18 years of age. And girls are more affected than boys when it comes to child labor.

A highly profitable "branch of the economy"

However, it is not easy to define the point at which voluntary work becomes compulsory. Because the transitions are fluid. Many victims know that they are being exploited but think they are guilty, for example because they failed to pay certain dues or took out a loan. Others often do not see themselves as abducted and exploited, as they initially agreed to it.

It is possible that in the private sector alone, which employs around 90 percent of forced laborers, US $ 150 billion of illegal profits are generated annually, of which 47 billion in Europe and other industrialized nations alone (ILO report “Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor "). The profit in industrialized countries is many times higher than in developing countries. A forced laborer in Europe has an average annual turnover of nearly $ 35,000 compared to just under $ 4,000 in Africa. Society as a whole bears the costs of modern slavery: Not only is it achieved an unfair competitive advantage that depresses wages. In addition, there are government expenditures to combat precarious working conditions as well as the lack of tax revenues and social security contributions.

ILO instruments

Against this background, the ILO campaigns against all forms of modern slavery at various levels. In addition to the specific project work on site (see section “A look into practice”), this includes, in particular, the formulation of core labor standards with which the international community is supposed to fight forced and child labor and leave it behind. These include Convention 29 on Forced and Compulsory Labor of 1930, Convention 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labor of 1957 and Recommendation 203 on Supplementary Measures for the Effective Elimination of Forced Labor of 2014. In the fight against child labor, the ILO 1973 Convention 138 on the Minimum age for admission to employment adopted. Convention 182 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor followed in 1999.

Germany too is facing the facts. In July of this year, the Bundestag passed a law to implement the EU directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings. In this way, children and women in particular are to be better protected against the exploitation of their labor force and forced prostitution.

Infobox: 2017 - New figures on forced and child labor worldwide

In the case of child labor, the ILO has already been able to determine the figures very precisely - thanks to its own surveys by the member states. Unlike forced labor, child labor is clearly visible. Since 2000, child labor has continuously declined worldwide. The ILO is currently analyzing why and in which regions and based on which policies this progress could be achieved. There will be significant improvements in the recording of forced labor: In 2017, for the first time, sufficient national survey results were available to measure forced labor more precisely using a statistical method. So far, the number of unreported cases has been very high, as these are crimes that far too often remain hidden.

Modern slavery in the heart of Europe

In the middle of Europe is the story of Jonas, a family man who had first hand experience of human trafficking and forced labor. It all started in his Lithuanian homeland. Jonas was in debt due to medical bills for one of his children. On-site work was hard to find and poorly paid. When he was approached by a compatriot and promised a well-paying job in Great Britain, including an advance payment for the trip, Jonas agreed. What followed was nothing but modern slavery. Jonas had to share simple accommodation with several other workers and sleep on the floor. The "intermediaries" withheld over 80 percent of the wages for his assembly line work in a British chicken factory - with a reference to the costs for the accommodation and the travel that had not yet been paid off. If he objected, violence was threatened or inflicted on him. He was trapped. It was only when the "Gangmasters Licensing Authority", a state organization to persecute gang-like structures in certain economic areas, which uncovered grievances in the factory, that Jonas came to safety.

Further stories can be found on the ILO campaign page “50forFreedom”. On the website anyone can also sign a petition calling on the world's governments to sign and implement the protocol.

Infobox: “50forFreedom” campaign - making the invisible visible

With the global “50forFreedom” campaign, the ILO wants to encourage the international community to intensify the fight against forced labor. To this end, 50 member states are to ratify the 2014 ILO Protocol to the Convention on Forced Labor by 2018. The protocol contains concrete measures for prevention, protection and remedial measures. The heart of the campaign is to give a voice to those people who have experienced forced labor in our time. In videos, those affected tell about their way out of forced labor, or actors slip into the role and recount their personal stories in a touching way, like the American actress Robin Wright here.