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The International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report last month on the status of forced and slave labor in global supply chains based on 2021 data. This is an update of the original report from 2014. Their findings are eye-opening beyond the headline that the “level of annual profit generated from forced labour in the world today” is US$236 billion – “illegal gains generated through forced labour.” Certainly, their calculation methodology and assumptions (outlined in Sections 2 and 3 of the report) may be open to critique, but I’m more interested in the underlying information ILO presents. Here are data points I found valuable:

  • There were 27.6 million people in forced labour on any given day in 2021.
  • No region of the world is spared from forced labour. Asia and the Pacific is host to more than half of the global total (15.1 million), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.1 million), Africa (3.8 million), the Americas (3.6 million), and the Arab States (0.9 million). But this regional ranking changes considerably when forced labour is expressed in terms of prevalence (i.e., as a proportion of the population). By this measure, forced labour is highest in the Arab States (5.3 per thousand people), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.4 per thousand), the Americas and Asia and the Pacific (both at 3.5 per thousand), and Africa (2.9 per thousand).
  • Most forced labour occurs in the private economy… State-imposed forced labour accounts for [only] 14 per cent of people in forced labour.
  • Forced labour touches virtually all parts of the private economy. Among cases of forced labour in the private economy where the type of work was known, the four broad sectors accounting for the majority of total forced labour (89 per cent) are industry, services, agriculture, and domestic work.
  • People in forced labour are subjected to multiple forms of coercion to compel them to work against their will. The systematic and deliberate withholding of wages is the most common (36 per cent) form of coercion, used by abusive employers to compel workers to stay in a job out of fear of losing accrued earnings. This is followed by abuse of vulnerability through threat of dismissal, which was experienced by one in five (21 per cent) of those in forced labour.

ILO concludes that although new forced labor laws have been enacted in recent years, they are not particularly effective:

“Currently, prosecutions for the crime of forced labour remain very low in most jurisdictions, meaning perpetrators are able to profit from their actions with impunity… forced labour cannot be ended through law enforcement measures alone. Rather, a broad-based approach is needed, with a strong emphasis on addressing root causes and the protection of victims.” 

One might question corporate and industry associations’ human rights due diligence efforts – including whether companies are acting on findings, and whether due diligence mechanisms (such as social audits) are accurately capturing realities in the field. This is one of the topics we will cover during Day 1 of our Virtual Event which is free of charge to attend. To register, or find out more – click here.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile