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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 55
Forced Labour

Who’s making money from forced labour?

30 April 2024

Forced labour is usually spoken of as a brutal abuse of fundamental human rights. It is less often understood as an economic problem that feeds crime, helps to perpetuate poverty, and damages legitimate businesses.  

A new report from the ILO throws light on this aspect of forced labour. Profits and Poverty: The economics of forced labour, focuses on the private sector profits generated by forced labour. It estimates these illegal profits at 236 billion US dollars, an amount that has increased by more than a third (37 per cent) in the last decade, the result of both a growth in the number of victims of forced labour as well as the increasing profits generated by their exploitation – around 28 million people are estimated to be in forced labour at any one time.

Michaëlle De Cock, head of the research unit of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles Department, and Anousheh Karvar, the French government delegate to the ILO join the podcast to discuss what can be done by governments and businesses to combat this crime.


Hello, and welcome back to the ILO's Future of Work Podcast,

I'm Sophy Fisher.

Forced labour is not just a brutal abuse

of fundamental human rights, it's also an economic issue.

One that feeds crime, helps to perpetuate poverty,

and damages legitimate businesses.

A new report from the ILO has found that forced labour

in the private sector generates $236 billion

in illegal profits every year.

What's more, that number has increased

by more than a third in the last decade.

The number of people in forced labour

at any one time has also gone up to around 28 million.

The ILO report is 'Profits and Poverty:

The Economics of Forced Labour'.

With me to discuss the findings is Michaëlle De Cock,

Head of the Research Unit

of the Fundamental Principles Department at the ILO.

I'm also joined by Anousheh Karvar,

the French Government Delegate to the ILO.

France, in particular the Ministry of Labour,

partly financed this report.

Thank you both for joining me and welcome.

Good morning.

Michaëlle, let me start with you.

What do we mean by profits?

We often talk about the number of people in forced labour,

but we don't so much talk about the financial side.

Presumably these people, they're not filing tax returns,

so how are you estimating profits?

Correct. Thank you very much for organizing this podcast

and giving us the opportunity to talk about the scandal

about the profits made on the back of the victims of forced labour.

Here, in order to explain what we mean by illegal profits,

I need also to go back to the victims of forced labour.

In our 28 million estimate of the number of people,

victims of forced labour at any moment of time,

as we speak today, 28 million people are in forced labour.

Some are in a situation of labour imposed by state authorities.

They are not part of our estimate of profits.

We limit the profits to those who are exploited by private.

They can be either in the, let's say, usual economy,

and we'll go back to that later,

so working in any sector of the economy, or also,

they can be in commercial sexual exploitation,

mainly in forced prostitution.

For those who are in the forced labour exploitation,

what we have measured and called profit is only the difference

between what the employers would pay to workers

under normal circumstances,

and what these victims are actually paid

for their work in a situation of forced labour.

The difference is the profit for this part.

For the victims of forced sexual exploitation,

as there is no standards on levels of payment,

what we call illegal profits is all the profits,

all the revenue made by the pimps, by those exploiting these victims,

minus the little tiny share that trickle down to the victims.

Right, okay.

One of the interesting things in your report is that

although sexual exploitation accounts for more than two-thirds

of these illegal profits, more than 73% or so,

it was also found in industry, agriculture,

agricultural services, and domestic labour.

Since the service sector excludes sexual exploitation,

can you give us some idea of some of the other service sectors

that are involved in this, and also some of the industrial sectors?

Yes, so let's start by industry.

Many of you will have heard about bonded labour in mining,

for example, in brick kilns.

That's part of industry.

It can also be construction.

We found through the data collection

that we support in many countries lots of evidence

and victims of forced labour in construction sites,

whether they are national or migrant workers,

both. It can be manufacturing.

We all heard about scandals of forced labour in-

The garment sector, for example, yes. -the garment sector, for example.

In services, we have mainly the wholesale and trade

could be retail shop, but also hotel sector,

accommodation, restaurant, food service.

It could be administrative support services,

we found some cases in many countries,

and a lot in transportation.

Just to complete, and under agriculture, we also count fishing,

which is a sector in which we found lots of forced labour.

Yes, on the fishing boats who are far out at sea,

and the ILO, I know, has done quite a lot of work in this area.

And fish processing. And fish processing.

What about the geographical spread?

Are there any particular areas that are better or worse in this,

or any particular factors that govern how it pans out globally?

You may remember from our report in ‘21 that forced labour was found everywhere.

There is not a single country where there is no case of forced labour.

So it's not a rich or poor thing then?

No, it's not.

It's not.

We even had this U-curve, U-shaped curve,

linking forced labour prevalence with GDP,

and showing that there is-- it's not linear.

There is also forced labour in the very rich countries

because of migration and migrant workers being more at risk

of being in forced labour.

Are there different types of forced labour in different types of countries?

There is, although those sectors I’d mentioned

before were found in all parts of the world.

Now, if we go back to profit, we have to relate the number

of the victims per region and the profit by victims.

For that, we were able to measure this time in 2024

with figures of the last years, the profit per victim was highest

in Europe and Central Asia.

There is no surprise because of the GDP

and the value of the work of the victims,

and in Arab states as well.

Then a bit less, so it's around 20,000 per victim in those regions.

Because in those countries,

those people should be being paid more for their labour.

Yes, and are paid really less.

The difference was estimated around 20,000 per victim

and per year, compared to 5,000 per victim

and per year in Africa and Asia.

Right, okay, so every country in the world

What do you think are some of the consequences of the growth of this,

I suppose you might even call it an industry in itself?

Oh, it's a crime. It's a crime, yes.

It is a crime We call it a crime.

It is a crime

It’s defined forced labour is a crime

and so is trafficking for forced labour or trafficking--

Which are all so ultimately linked?

Yes, or trafficking for sexual exploitation.

It's a crime and should be combated as a crime, and we’ll come back to that.

The consequences are first for the victims themselves.

They suffer exploitation.

They suffer in their bodies.

We are now starting looking at the health consequences

of the victims of forced labour.

They lose money, they cannot communicate,

they suffer psychological violence.

There is a lot of research on the consequences for the victims.

It's also, there are also consequences for the states.

I don't know, Anousheh, if you want to take over.

Hello, everyone.

Hello to you, Sophy.

Thank you very much for this invitation.

Yes, it is very important for us to emphasize on the fact

that the work done by the ILO is very important

for objectivizing the phenomenon and also better understanding the linkages

between forced labour and economic incentives.

It is a business case, first of all.

What is important is that what has been put forward is about the fact

that 9 out of 10 victims of forced labour are in the private sector.

This is a matter of co-responsibility between businesses,

corporates, and the public sector, and governments.

What can we say we did and we should do as governments?

First of all, we should say again that it is a crime.

Forced labour is a crime.

Human trafficking is a crime.

These are illegal practices so they should be punished.

They should be punished by prosecution, by penal prosecution.

This is the area in which France has made progress.

In 2022, for example,

we had more than 1,000 sentences pronounced against perpetrators.

Out of them, 673 firm prison sentences-

-with an average of 26 months of imprisonment,

because this is a crime, this is illegal,

and we should now think about remedies

for the victims when we can identify them.

Identification, flushing out, putting this out is very important.

Detection, identification, and then prosecution is the very chain

of responsibility we can take over amongst governments.

The second thing governments could do is

about tackling the root causes of forced labour.

Root causes of forced labour relate to our fight against poverty.

It is also about our fight against informality in the economy

and lack of social protection.

For all these issues,

we should know that those who have recourse to forced labour

are those that need it to survive.

This is very important to put also the question

of living wage in the middle of this landscape.

This is the part governments can do,

but also companies have their own responsibility on that.

They should, as Michaëlle said about migration,

they should put forward fair recruitment processes.

They should exert their due diligence on their value chains,

on the global supply chains from, our MNEs,

our multinational enterprises in the north through the south,

where we have all these subcontractors that could of course exert forced labour.

This is pretty tough of course,

because a lot of these supply chains involve many countries.

They're very multinational.

By definition, this requires a multinational solution.

Now, you used to lead Alliance 8.7.

Perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit

about that and what you think from that perspective can be done

at a multinational level involving a lot of countries at different levels

of development with different legal systems.

Yes, of course.

This is very important to say that partnership,

international partnership is key in this situation.

What I said about penal prosecution is very important,

that it should be international.

If not, forced labour goes from one country to the other and that is the main issue.

The other thing is about global partnership.

This is what we did with Alliance 8.7,

which is a global partnership against forced labour,

child labour, human trafficking and modern slavery.

We put around the same table all stakeholders,

governments, companies, social partners,

because one key issue also for detecting forced labour is

to have trade unions in companies

and even in small companies in the global south.

Because they see things.

They see things.

They can just fight against it locally.

Also around the table, we have international organizations

as the ILO, but also FAO, and all the others,

because this issue is not only a matter of one specific sector.

Multi-stakeholder proceedings

plus whole of government work at the global level.

What we did with Alliance 8.7 is that in those countries

that we have a big prevalence of forced labour,

to have national plans to fight against forced labour,

child labour and human trafficking together.

I would like to just come back on that.

Extremely important to know that to combat forced labour,

sometimes the main thing to do is to combat discrimination,

because in this country,

those people in forced labour are those who are victims of discrimination

because of any ground of discrimination,

their ethnic group, their religion, whatever.

That puts them at risk of forced labour, but also all the policies related

to decent work is the best way to combat forced labour.

This includes the freedom of association,

collective bargaining, where workers can stand up for their rights,

the risk of forced labour decreases.

In order to do that in an efficient way at national level

and international level, we need good data.

Anousheh, you have one final point you'd like to make.

Yes, because it is very important to emphasize the fact

that decent wages is really key in this issue.

When in, for example, in fishing, we have payment per share

of fish caught or in agriculture, pay per piecework,

this is a way to encourage forced labour.

Living wage and the work that has been done by the experts

of the ILO on a tripartite level about how to frame living wage

at each country is really very important measure in order

to fight against forced labour.

This is a subject that I'm sure we will be returning to,

sadly, because it's not going away anytime soon,

but also because it's extremely important to talk

about it and to discuss solutions.

That is all we have time for today now.

Thank you so much to my guests, Michaëlle De Cock,

who is Head of the Research Unit

of the Fundamental Principle Department here at the ILO,

and Anousheh Karvar,

who is the French Government delegate to the ILO.

The new report is called Profits and Poverty:

The Economics of Forced Labour.

You can find it on the ILO's website.

Once again, thank you for listening.

Please join us again soon for another Future of Work Podcast.