Even the UN labor agency was surprised by the results of its report on forced labor. The organization found that the illicit practices generate $150 billion yearly. DW spoke to the ILO's Corinne Vargha about the study.
Deutsche Welle: Forced labor generates $150 billion (110 billion euros) per year, and some 21 million people worldwide work as forced laborers, the International Labor Organization has found. Did those figures surprise you?
Corinne Vargha:They did, because these estimates are three times higher than [in the last report] we produced. And these are very conservative estimates, because we had a very narrow definition of forced labor.
If you put these figures in perspective: $150 billion in profits by 21 million forced laborers. You have many countries in the world, whose population and GDP do not even match these figures. We are talking about a vast nation of hidden people about whom we are not talking enough and about whom the time has come to take strong action.
In what areas do these nearly 21 million forced laborers work?
Ninety percent of the 21 million work in the private economy. Sixty-eight percent are victims of forced labor exploitation: This includes agriculture, fishing, forestry, construction, domestic work, mining, utilities or manufacturing.
Twenty-two percent are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Prostitution accounts for $99 billion of the profit generated. So out of this $150 billion generated annually, two-thirds is generated through forced sexual exploitation. Forced sexual exploitation is one of the most profitable practices, mainly because its low-cost operation doesn't require much investment.
Of these 90 percent in the private economy, you will find 66 percent in Asia-Pacific, which is the region that accounts by far for the largest number of forced laborers. The region that witnesses the highest prevalence of forced labor is central, southeastern and eastern Europe.
The remaining 10 percent of forced labor is enacted by governments.
Why is European forced labor so profitable?
One has to remind oneself that forced labor is about illegal practices. The lack of compliance is one of the main reasons these illicit practices are profitable. The value of labor in Europe is high, and that makes the profits even better.
This high prevalence rate in Europe is often linked to migration and migration for labor purposes. Either intentionally or not intentionally, people find themselves in forced labor practices.
What are the socio-economic factors that make people vulnerable to forced labor?
In that respect, it was a ground-breaking report, because it enables us to better understand why some people are falling more frequently or more easily or are more at risk to fall into forced labor.
You have the poor households, which are totally unable to overcome any sudden income shock. What we are observing also is that not only are these families below the poverty line, but the families where the parents are illiterate are also more at risk of getting themselves into forced labor as well as their entire family along with them. These are two critical factors that prompt us actually to target much better the kind of policy response countries can put into place to prevent and minimize the risks and vulnerabilities of these groups to fall into forced labor.
How is the ILO fighting the problem of forced labor?
We are approaching this problem in many different ways. The first one is by filling in the gap we have at present in the international legal framework. Two international labor conventions deal with forced labor, standards adopted when colonies were still in place and were meant to target the practices at that time. Now, the forthcoming conference that is going to meet from next week is going to be discussing a proposal for new instruments to regulate the new forms of forced labor.
We are also taking action at country level. And we are doing this hand-in-hand with governments, employers and workers. We need to be better at preventing people from falling into forced labor practices. But we need also to be better at protecting victims. So we have programs around those two areas.
We are also partnering with employers who are strengthening their due diligence against forced labor, particularly in their supply chain.
Ten years from now, do you think there will be a decline in forced labor worldwide?
Yes, it is possible to better understand this phenomenon, to make it more visible, to put in place effective actions to combat these practices. It is a question of political will, of giving it the priority attention it deserves. And it is a question also of joining forces - all the concerned actors joining forces. We are seeing a number of countries coming to the ILO for assistance and advice. We hope to see more coming as a result of this report.
Corinne Vargha is head of the ILO's Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch, which implements the agency's special action program to combat forced labor.