Asia Heads List of Exploited Labor Says U.N. Report

Workers unload sacks of rice from a truck in the outskirts of Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar. Myanmar says it is committed to ending forced labour and has been cooperating with the I.L.O. on eradicating the practice. (Photo: Law Eh Soe / AFP-Getty Images)

Over three-quarters of the 12 million people worldwide who are exploited in forced labor conditions are in Asia, according to a comprehensive global report released last week by United Nations social justice and work rights agency the International Labour Organization (I.L.O.).

Defining forced labor as “work extracted under threat and against a person’s will,” the report has assessed the Asia and Pacific region as heading the worldwide list with 9.5 million people. Latin America follows with 1.3 million, Sub-Saharan Africa with 660,000 and Europe and the United States with 360,000.

Total global profits earned from the exploitation of men, women and children have been calculated as being $32 billion, the first time such an estimate of the illicit industry has been made.

Describing forced labor as “a social evil which has no place in the modern world,” I.L.O. Director General Juan Somavia said in an I.L.O. press release that the practice “represents the underside of globalization and denies people their basic rights and dignity.” Somavia went on to say that the eradication of forced labor was crucial in achieving “a fair globalization and decent work for all.”

Targeting the increased economic pressures placed on companies in affluent countries to utilize cheap labor in third world nations, Patrick Belser, the I.L.O.’s anti-forced labor coordinator said, “The traditional forms [of exploited labor] linked to discrimination, linked to poverty and linked to outmoded agrarian systems tend to diminish while those more modern forms of trafficking (influenced by globalization) may very well be on the increase.”

I.L.O. spokesman Roger Plant also linked globalization to the high incidence of exploited labor in developing regions such as Asia and warned that subcontractors to private companies in these areas may be exploiting labor to maximize profit. Hinting that the contracting companies based in more affluent countries might not even be aware of the situation Plant said, “We have identified sectors where there is cause for concern that forced labor can be penetrating the supply chain of private companies, including quite major companies.”

“It’s not associated with a few pockets or a few countries, we’re finding this in all regions in all kinds of economies, including the industrialized as well as the developing countries.

“Most of the victims are in the developing countries, that’s where the lion’s share of forced labor is today, but most of the profits are realized in the industrialized world,” said Plant.

The I.L.O. noted that by far the largest proportion of all forced labor victims throughout the world — 9.8 million people — served private interests with 2.5 million under the control of government or the military.

The I.L.O. also outlined more “traditional” forms of slave labor such as bonded labor systems in parts of South Asia and slavery-related practices still in existence as major problems and showed that economic necessity, indebtedness — sometimes inherited from their parents — and limited education and employment opportunities are the root causes for the plentiful supply of people being exploited in these ways. The report found that “forced labor is present in some form in all continents, in most countries, and in every kind of economy.”

Identifying the rise in more “modern” types of slave labor such as trafficking of people for sexual exploitation by criminal networks and forced labor for economic exploitation the report specifically drew attention to the trafficking of Asian women and children to other countries around the world to act as sex workers and domestic slaves. The I.L.O. notes that many entered affluent countries on legitimate visas expecting to work in legitimate areas only to be tricked into prostitution and slave rackets upon their arrival in their country of destination.

Stating that “women and children can be especially prone to be trapped in exploitative living and working situations from which they have great difficulty escaping” the report went on to emphasize that children account for around 40 percent to 50 percent of all exploited labor in the world.

However, despite revealing the magnitude of the problem, Director General Somavia remains optimistic that the goal of eliminating exploited labor from the world can be achieved. To achieve this end, Somavia has called for a “global alliance against forced labor involving governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, development agencies and international financial institutions concerned with poverty reduction, and civil society including research and academic institutions.”

The report will be discussed at the Organization’s annual International Labour Conference in June.