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Forced labour - a global issue

Following a campaign started by the Guardian newspaper, the UK media has cast a spotlight on the conditions under which construction workers working on 2022 World Cup projects in Qatar are employed. As a result of this publicity, the Emirate has promised action to improve labour standards. However, in a report published on 20th May 2014, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (1) has published disturbing details about the scale of the issue around the world and has focussed on the profits being made through slave labour.

The authors of the report estimate that the profits generated globally through forced labour amount to US$ 150 billion per year. Of this US $ 51.8 Billion are generated in the Asia Pacific region with two thirds resulting from sexual exploitation. However, lest we become complacent, the report estimates that the Developed Economies, including the EU, generate around US $ 46.9 billion. If we consider the annual profit made per victim the ranking changes with the Developed Economies topping the list at US $ 34,800 per victim with the Middle east moving to second place at US $ 15,000.

It would be easy for us to say that this is not a workplace issue but the report looks at the profit by activity and it estimates that construction, manufacturing, mining & utility industries make profits of US $ 43 billion from such activities, which are illegal in most countries.

In the UK we have had two high profile prosecutions following the deaths, in 2004 of 21 Chinese cockle pickers and the 2012 case in which a man and woman in Maidstone, Kent, were found to have been keeping Lithuanian men in “slave” conditions and forcing them to work in the food industry. Subsequently a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2012 (2) found that migrant workers were “facing threatening and inhumane conditions in parts of the UK food Industry”. A further report by the Foundation (3) in June 2013, predicts that labour exploitation will soon exceed sexual exploitation with “several thousand” cases in the UK and 880,000 in the EU.

If we are to address this problem seriously, it is not only governments who must act but pressure must be put on the exploiters through stricter control of supply chains by business.

1. Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, ILO, 2014
2. Experiences of forced labour in the UK food industry, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2012
3. Forced labour in the UK, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2103

Barry Holt, Director of Policy & Research, IIRSM

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