Profit from forced labour has increased by 37% worldwide, say ILO

27.6 million people fall victim of forced labour around the world. In Brazil civil society is reporting cases and seeking reparation

 Lista Suja do trabalho escravo, elaborada pelo governo federal, reúne 248 patrões no Cadastro de Empregadores que submeteram trabalhadores a condições análogas à escravidão. Foto: Ministério do Trabalho/Divulgação Lista Suja do trabalho escravo, elaborada pelo governo federal, reúne 248 patrões no Cadastro de Empregadores que submeteram trabalhadores a condições análogas à escravidão. Foto: Ministério do Trabalho/Divulgação

Modern slavery is a lucrative reality in different parts of the world. A report published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), at the end of March, reveals a 37% increase in illegal profits stemming from forced labour in the private sector since 2014.

The research, which is called “Profits and Poverty: Economic Aspects of Forced Labour”, indicates that forced labour results in illegal profit amounting to $236 billion per year. This sum corresponds to the wages that workers should receive but which actually end up in the hands of their exploiters.

“People in situations of forced labour are subject to multiple forms of coercion, with the deliberate and systematic withholding of wages being one of the most common,” stated Gilbert F. Houngbo, Director-General of ILO, in the report.

What is forced labour?

Forced labour is “any work or service exacted from someone under the threat of penalty and for which the said person has not offered themselves voluntarily.”

Threats may occur at any point in the work cycle: at the time of recruitment (forcing someone to accept work against their will); while the work is being carried out (obliging someone to work and/or live in conditions they do not agree with) or when they try to leave (obliging someone to remain in a job).

According to the ILO report, in 2021, the last year included for comparison, 27.6 million people were in this situation around the world.

Forced labour perpetuates cycles of poverty and exploitation and strikes at the core of human dignity. The international community must urgently come together to take action to end this injustice, to safeguard workers´ rights and to uphold the principles of justice and equality for all people,” stated Houngbo. 

The worsening observed in the period analysed is due to both an increase in the number of people being forced to work and to a rise in profits generated from their exploitation.

Forced commercial sexual exploitation represents more than two-thirds (73%) of the total illegal profits, despite accounting for only 27% of the total number of victims. Out of every five people subjected to this situation daily, four are girls or women, and ILO estimates that criminal groups earn $27,252 from the work of each of them.

After commercial sexual exploitation, the sector with the highest annual illegal profits from forced labour is industry, with $35 billion, followed by the services sector ($20.8 billion), agriculture ($5 billion) and domestic work ($2.6 billion).

The report highlights the urgent need to invest in measures to halt the flow of illegal profits and to hold perpetrators accountable. It recommends strengthening legal frameworks, increasing labour inspection in high-risk sectors and improving coordination between the enforcement of labour and criminal laws.

However, ILO warns that combating forced labour requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying causes of the problem and prioritises safeguarding victims.

The situation in Brazil

At the beginning of 2023, the rescue of 207 men in a situation analogous to slavery at a winery in Rio Grande do Sul shed light on racism and the precariousness of work in Brazil. In addition to agriculture, construction work, garment manufacturing and domestic work are other economic sectors with serious cases of forced labour.  

Brazilian civil society organizations are working to change this reality. Furthermore, last year, during the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, Conectas, Adere-MG (Articulation of Rural Workers in the State of Minas Gerais), Business Human Rights Resource Centre and Oxfam Brasil called on the international community to reject production stemming from work analogous to slavery in the country and presented data from the document “Dismantling and setbacks in the system to combat slavery in Brazil”, compiled by the organizations in 2022.

In January of this year, Conectas published the report “Pests in the fields: modern slavery in the coffee industry”, in partnership with the Dutch organization SOMO. The survey reveals the persistence of modern slavery and the need for significant measures to curb forced labour in the coffee production chain. According to the Panel of Information and Statistics of Labour Inspection in Brazil, from 1996 to 2023, 3,700 workers were found in conditions analogous to slavery in coffee plantations across the country. 

According to the report, there is evidence that corporate self-regulation is flimsy and that external audits and certification schemes are flawed. They are failing to consistently and effectively identify risks to human rights and prevent harm. In fact, they provide false assurances of compliance which is hindering the investigation and interventions which are needed.

Dozens of recurring violations are documented in the study, such as the absence of employment contracts, irregularities in payments, inadequate hygiene facilities, lack of access to clean water and meals.

International Denunciation

In March of this year, Conectas and Adere-MG returned to the UN Human Rights Council to denounce the Brazilian government’s difficulty in the area of labour inspection. “Despite its efforts, the Brazilian state remains ineffective in this fight. Inspections to combat slave labour have been suspended,” said Jorge Ferreira dos Santos from Adere-MG. 

Santos was born in Minas Gerais and is a rural worker. He fights for human rights in his area of work (read the complete story in the publication Conectas 20). He himself faced work analogous to slavery during a period of his life and says “none of my rights were respected. Nowadays, I understand that I was subjected to situations of work analogous to slavery, such as exhausting work hours and debt servitude.”

Updated Dirty List

The new Dirty List of slave labour, published at the beginning of April, was compiled by the Federal Government and brings together 248 employers who are on the Employees Register, who have subjected workers to conditions analogous to slavery. The number represents the largest increase recorded since the list was created. Of these, 43 were added after practices of work analogous to slavery in the domestic sphere were discovered. The economic activities with the highest number of employers included in the current update are: domestic work (43), coffee cultivation (27), cattle farming (22), charcoal production (16), and construction (12).

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