National Consumers League

ILO estimate: 21 million experienced forced labor during 10-year period


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By Steven Dorshkind, NCL public policy intern

Steven Dorshkind, a child labor intern at the NCL this summer, is a junior at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where he is studying politics and history. Steven is currently studying at The George Washington University in the Semester in Washington Politics, which made it possible for him to get this internship.

Slavery seems like a relic of the past, but unfortunately, millions of people are still enduring slave-like conditions. The International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report this month that estimates that 20.9 million people experienced forced labor in the period of 2002-2011. Sadly, about one in four forced labor victims or about 5.5 million individuals are children.

The ILO estimated in 2005 that about 12.3 million persons were in forced labor. A new survey methodology led to the sizable jump in the number of forced labor victims, which the ILO believes is a much more accurate estimate than the 2005 figure. The term forced labor refers to all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the individual has not offered himself voluntarily.

The private sector is responsible for 90 percent of all forced labor, the rest is forced labor caused by governments, including prison labor and forced military service. The private sector forced labor is divided into sexual and labor exploitation. Of all the people exploited for labor, about 44 percent are moved internally or internationally, and the rest are forced into labor in their place of origin or residence. Those who are moved internally are mainly exploited for sexual reasons; 98 percent are women. These women are usually taken from their homes and families and brought to unfamiliar areas where they are forced to perform sexual acts for strangers – sometimes for years.

The highest incidence of forced labor occurred in Central and South Eastern Europe (non-European Union (EU)) at 4.2 individuals per thousand, Africa at 4.0, the Middle East at 3.4, Asia and the Pacific at 3.3, Latin America and the Caribbean at 3.1, and Developed Economies and EU nations at 1.5. Of these, 74 percent of people are 18 years and older, and of those 55 percent are women and girls, some 11.4 million, while 45 percent are men and boys (about 9.5 million).

The average period of time that victims spend in forced labor, in reported cases, is approximately 18 months. Unfortunately, many people serve in forced labor for a great deal longer, some reported cases have gone as far as six to ten years. Most of these reported cases with long durations end due to some form of intervention. By estimating the amount of time that an unreported case persists, the ILO estimates that the average unreported case of forced labor lasts about 29.4 months, or just about two and a half years.

The sickening truth is that modern-day slavery is still out there, and it is destroying the lives of millions of people. To understand the magnitude of the phenomenon, one must imagine a population similar to New York State’s – a forced labor site where the entire population is coerced to perform labor and all the inhabitants have their basic human rights and freedoms erased. The magnitude of this problem becomes evident, and the need for a solution becomes manifest. One hopes that the ILO forced labor estimate will create the will needed to address this vexing problem.