21 Million Worldwide Are Victims of Forced Labor

By Dori Meinert Jun 5, 2012

Almost 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor, either coerced or deceived into starting jobs that they cannot leave, according to an estimate released June 1, 2012, by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for 11.7 million, or 56 percent, of the global total. An estimated 3.7 million forced laborers are found in Africa, followed by 1.8 million in Latin America.

The vast majority—18.7 million, or 90 percent—are exploited by individuals or private companies. Of these, 4.5 million, or 22 percent, are victims of forced sexual exploitation, and 14.2 million, or 68 percent, are forced to work in areas such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing, according to the ILO report.

Another 2.2 million, or 10 percent, are trapped in state-imposed forms of forced labor, toiling in substandard prisons, in the state military or with rebel armed forces.

The ILO estimates that 5.5 million, or 26 percent, of the victims are younger than 18 years of age.

Laws and Enforcement

“We hope the startling enormity of the crime as set forth in this document will help governments adopt modern laws where they are not in place and where they are in place to actually enforce them broadly and effectively,” Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large with the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C.

In addition, the ILO report “creates an imperative for businesses to recognize the interest they have in rooting out [forced labor from] their operations, their supply chains and their recruitment,” said Georgetown University Professor Mark Lagon, CdeBaca’s predecessor at the State Department. Historically, corporate efforts have been primarily window-dressing, he said. Lagon is advising a coalition of global businesses seeking to establish best practices to prevent or eliminate human trafficking.

In a written statement, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said: “These numbers provide more precise estimates and focus our attention on the magnitude of this global crime and on the plight of those who continue to be coerced or deceived into forced labor or sexual exploitation and are a welcome addition to the research in this important area.” The U.S. Labor Department funded ILO efforts to develop survey guidelines.

The 2012 estimate is considerably higher than the ILO’s 2005 estimate of 12.7 million.But that doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in the crime. The new estimateisbased on improved methodology and more and better data sources, said ILO consultant Michaelle de Cock. With a 7 percent margin of error, the ILO estimate ranges from 19.5 million to 22.3 million. Some estimates of human trafficking go as high as 27 million.

The ILO defines forced labor as situations where individuals are made to work against their will, coerced by threats or violence, or forced by more subtle means, such as debt or confiscation of visas. Such situations can be considered human trafficking or slavery, although they are not identical terms in a legal sense, according to the ILO. Forced labor is a crime under international law.

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.

To read the May 2012 HR Magazine cover story on human trafficking and share your ideas, click here.

For the latest news and additional resources on human trafficking,
click here.

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