World's forced labour laws to be tightened, says ILO

child sugar worker in Guatemala Image copyright Dominic Hurst
Image caption Child labour in Central America's sugar industry is common

For the first time in 84 years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will this week decide on reforms to its convention on forced labour.

This is a global practice in which millions of workers live in a form of modern slavery.

They are handled as property and are forced to work in industries that range from the prostitution run by organised criminal gangs to making bricks for the glittering hotels and shopping malls of emerging economies.

The ILO estimates that 21 million people are in forced labour worldwide, creating a staggering annual revenue of $150bn (£90bn; 110bn euros) - which exceeds the gross domestic product of many developing countries.

But none of the illegal profits go into the pockets of the workers, or are paid as tax revenue, says the ILO.

More than $40bn has been traced to everyday industries such as construction and agriculture that feeds straight into the global economy.

The ILO was created in 1919 in the aftermath of World War One to draw a direct link between the treatment of people and conflict. Its mission statement declares that lasting peace can only be accomplished if it is based on social justice.

The ILO's original Forced Labour Convention was drawn up in 1930 and it aimed primarily at preventing governments - many of them then colonial - from abusing their workers.

It states that signatories must suppress the use of forced and compulsory labour in all its forms.

Image copyright Dominic Hurst
Image caption Over half of all forced labourers work in Asia, says the ILO

'Some companies get it'

This week's reforms reflect the shift of economic control over the decades from governments to the private sector and its supply chains.

They follow the introduction three years ago of fresh guidelines from the UN and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that address human rights issues in the business world - together with laws, mainly in the US, aimed at holding to account companies whose products might be traceable to forced labour.

All this marks a new direction in international thinking, although campaigners say it still does not go far enough.

They argue that the global private sector has shown very little initiative on the challenges of modern slavery and that there remains too much contrast between the upbeat photo-op smiles of workers on corporate web sites and the fear, violence and hunger enveloping those at the very bottom of their supply chains.

"Some companies get it, but many do not," says Peter McAllister of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is funded by businesses to advise on social responsibility.

The revelations of conditions for migrant workers in Qatar on World Cup construction - an event very much in the public spotlight - shed a light on allegations of human rights violations against workers. Evidence from activists and academics runs through a much wider arc.

Image copyright Dominic Hurst
Image caption Cocoa farms in West Africa still rely on child labour

Airless factories

More than a decade after a slate of famous chocolate companies promised the US Congress to eradicate child labour on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, children are still working openly, often trafficked far away from their families.

Last year, central American governments were given special European Union concessions to import sugar while child workers cut cane under the watch of threatening security guards on the payroll of the big sugar companies.

In India, illiterate young slave girls work in airless cotton factories breathing in a dust that is known as the "horror of the white cloud". By the time they turn 20, their lungs will be damaged permanently.

None of this is difficult to unearth, bringing into question the effectiveness of the raft of laws and agreements that have been introduced over the decades.

Before this week's revised convention, the ILO had introduced a Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 1999.

In 1926, the League of Nations drew up the Slavery Convention and its successor, the UN, amended it in 1956 to clarify the definition of modern slavery.

Many governments supported these moves by bringing in their own laws. India, for example, banned forced labour in 1976 under its Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.

Image copyright Dominic Hurst
Image caption India has the highest number of people in forced labour, says the ILO

Weak institutions

Yet today, India presides over by far the biggest number of victims - an estimated 10 million. Contractors operate openly as they trade people and families, transporting them to work in the cotton, brick and other industries that feed India's economy.

The stories told by those who have been freed or escape are widespread and horrendous. Workers are kept in check by a wall of fear and threats that reach right back into their villages.

Activists say one mechanism to ensure obedience is for a woman to be gang-raped in front of her husband and children. Beatings are common. Pregnant women are kicked in their stomachs. Malnutrition and disease are widespread.

It will take some time to see how much impact the updated ILO convention will have. But the reform itself marks an acceptance in recent years that many governments in the developing world have weak institutions that are incapable or unwilling to uphold the law.

Therefore, more responsibility must fall on businesses, particularly the global multi-nationals, whose institutions are strong enough to force a way forward.

Most say they have zero tolerance to human rights abuse in their supply chains. Activists would like those promises opened to public scrutiny.

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites