Forced Labour and Human Trafficking: the Labour Market Dimensions by Roger Plant, Athens, November 2008

Presentation to International Trade Union Conference on Combating Forced Labour and Human Trafficking, Athens, 21-23 November 2008

Statement | Athens, Greece | 27 November 2008

Your Excellencies

Distinguished participants,

It is a great honour to address you today at this ninetieth anniversary celebration. The ILO and the GSEE are almost the same age, with the Greek Trade Union beating us by a few months. Next in line, the ILO’s first Convention against forced labour was adopted 78 years ago in 1930. So this event provides the opportunity to share a lot of historical experience by our organisations, in fighting for social justice and against labour exploitation.

Despite our efforts there are huge challenges ahead, for trade unionists in Europe and worldwide, as well as for governments, employers’ organizations, civil society groups and others. In the ILO, we have been working intensively for the past few months on the preparation of our third global report on forced labour. It is due to be launched in May next year, just one month after our own ninetieth anniversary. I hope it will build a new momentum for global action against forced labour, and trafficking for either sexual or other forms of economic exploitation, so that we can meet our goal of eradicating these unacceptable evils from labour markets over the next decade.

My main task today is to explain why trafficking as well as forced labour are labour market concerns, why they need urgent attention from labour administration and labour inspectorates, as well as trade unions of course, rather than being addressed only by the police, immigration authorities and criminal law enforcement.

Let’s begin with one very recent case in Europe, cited in the London Guardian just three days ago on 19 November.

Over 60 eastern Europeans were moved by police from vegetable fields, in what was called the United Kingdom’s biggest move against human trafficking for labour exploitation. Police believe the workers were receiving far below the minimum wage, for working up to 16 hours a day and six days a week. They also spent up to four hours a day travelling to the worksite. The vegetables were believed to be destined for large supermarkets. Detectives suspect that the exploited persons, most of whom were quite legally in the UK, had been recruited through advertisements and overseas agencies in countries like Lithuania and Poland. Police believed that the workers had been given money to reach the UK, but had been required to pay it back, probably with interest. Their passports would have been removed, and cash deducted from their incomes for transport to the fields. Violence was used against some of the workers. The Serious Organised Crime Agency, which carried out the investigations and the raid, described the system as “debt bondage”.

This one article covers most of what I want to share with you today about modern forced labour and trafficking, how deeply they can be embedded in modern labour markets, and how even large modern industries can be affected. At the same time these are very hidden problems, usually in remote regions hard to detect, and also difficult to prosecute.


First, because the forms of coercion today can be very subtle, unlike the overt slavery of past centuries. Second, because poor and vulnerable workers can submit themselves to very severe exploitation, with a measure of free will. It is difficult to know when forced labour in the legal sense stops, and when poor conditions of work without forced labour begins.

So we need to reflect on such concepts as forced labour, labour trafficking and debt bondage, how they can be captured in practice, and also how these concepts overlap. We also need to think about the appropriate law and policy response, and what trade unions in particular can do about this.

The ILO broadly defines forced labour as a situation where people enter work or service against their freedom of choice, and cannot leave it without punishment or the threat of a penalty. In some cases, the worst forms of abuse, physical violence and confinement is used. Domestic workers can be locked in private apartments for up to 24 hours per day, or migrant workers in closely guarded camps threatened with violence by mafia gangs.

But the other face of modern forced labour is the millions of persons who are tricked into exploitation, often through massive overcharging for visas and transport and other transaction costs, and who then have to repay debts by working in sub-standard conditions, for well below the minimum wage, perhaps twice the normal working hours, and in conditions which are a severe breach of health and safety regulations. Very often there is no physical constraint, no chains or shackles, and perhaps no open violence. They may be able to run away and seek shelter. But in Europe they are usually migrants in an irregular situation, who can risk deportation by reporting the abuse to the police and law enforcement.

An example well documented in ILO publications is that of Chinese migrants on European, US and other labour markets. They and their families can pay vast amounts of money, up to 50,000 Euros in some cases to the intermediaries who them – through a mix of legal and illegal means – into the destination countries. They then work day and night and non-stop, averaging about two years in most cases to pay off their debts, after which they begin to make savings and investments in their villages of origin. In these cases there can be intensive debates, among analysts and also law enforcement officials, as to whether or not this is forced labour and trafficking.

The Palermo Trafficking Protocol opens the need to set out the parameters of the criminal offence of exploitation, for which there is little precedent in international law, let alone court decisions. In several European countries, the term forced labour as such is not explicitly recognised in criminal law. And in others, the conceptual entry point for defining trafficking, whether for labour or sexual exploitation, may not be forced labour in the sense of the ILO Conventions. Examples are Belgium and France, where the offence of trafficking involves the imposition of living and working conditions considered “incompatible with human dignity”. Under a recent amendment in Germany, one of the criteria for defining the offence of labour trafficking is the payment of wages to migrant workers which are markedly less than those received by German nationals.

How widespread are these problems, in Europe and elsewhere?

Over the past few years, the ILO has conducted research and surveys in many countries, to increase understanding of forced labour, trafficking for labour exploitation, and their underlying causes. In Europe, country studies in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Russia and elsewhere have identified the industries and sectors where trafficking into forced labour can occur, as well as the recruitment mechanisms. Worldwide, some 12.3 million people are subjected to forced labour at any moment of time. About one fifth of these have been trafficked into forced labour. In industrialised countries including Europe at least 360,000 persons are in forced labour, some three quarters as a result of trafficking. The profits made from this exploitation are immense. Our 2005 report estimated that the trafficking industry alone generated profits of almost US$ 32 billion. We are now revising these estimates, and believe that forced labour and trafficking outside the sex industry may be generating profits several times higher than previously realised.

Our 2005 report also focused on the changing forms of forced labour. Several decades ago the main problems were abuses by the state. Today, around 80 per cent of all forced labour is exacted by private agents, usually in the underground economy, but it is also penetrating the supply chains of major corporations. When there are complex chains of subcontracting, or outsourcing the production of goods such as garments and textiles to poorer countries, there is a risk of forced labour in all kinds of industries. The more research that is done, the more we are finding evidence of forced labour in different industries. Not only the low paid or hazardous professions, such as construction and agriculture, or those with the long hours and low pay such as hotels and restaurants. There has been evidence of forced labour in food packaging and processing; or in the modern and high-technology sectors such as automobiles, ship building and electronics.

It seems that no country is truly immune. In May last year we had a meeting in Stockholm, on the invitation of the Swedish government, bringing together several Scandinavian countries. With their advanced systems of social protection, these were the last places on earth I would have expected to find indications of forced labour and trafficking. But participants identified sectors and industries – construction, restaurants, domestic work, berry-picking in northern Finland and Sweden – where Nordic workers just won’t do the jobs on offer, where profit margins are tight, and where the incentives to hire irregular foreign workers can create a breeding ground for forced labour and trafficking. Speakers consistently emphasised the need for refined labour regulations, especially with regard to sub-contracting, and to open up the well regulated Nordic labour markets to the new and non-national workers. They also stressed the need to increase resources allocated to labour inspectors, linking their work with criminal law enforcement and others responsible tackling the problems.

And what about the response? When these are systemic patterns of labour market abuse, affecting hundreds of thousands of workers in Europe alone, how do you find a suitable blend of criminal law enforcement, awareness raising and prevention, protection of workers against abuse, and also pressing for the law and policy reforms needed to address the root causes?

In Europe as in the United States, there has been a slow but steady rise in efforts to prosecute labour trafficking over the past couple of years. There have been cases in Germany, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom, among others. In the US some quite heavy criminal sentences have been passed, mainly on overseas nationals who are found to have abused domestic workers. The total number of prosecutions remains small in comparison with the likely extent of the problem. In its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US Government indicated for the first time the number of total prosecutions and convictions that relate to labour trafficking (490 prosecutions and 326 convictions, out of a total of 5,682 prosecutions and 3,427 convictions for all cases of trafficking).

Criminal prosecutions are necessary in the extreme cases, like the high profile “Terra Promesa” incident of July 2006 in southern Italy, involving cooperation between the Italian and Polish police in response to extensive allegations of slavery like practices against Polish and other migrant workers in farms of Southern Italy. But the main objective of any policy response should be to assist those who have suffered from labour trafficking, not only through medical and social care where necessary, but in particular to help them to secure compensation for lost earnings. If the single motive of labour traffickers has been to make large and unfair profits at the expense of the vulnerable, then the response should be fairly self-evident. Confiscate the profits and assets of the traffickers, perhaps also imposing prison terms in severe cases. And make sure that the trafficked are duly compensated for loss of earnings, receiving at least the equivalent of a minimum wage payment for all the hours they have worked.

In most cases, the primary concern of workers is the protection of their wages. I was recently encouraged to read of a landmark ruling, by the Supreme Court of Greece in 2007, that irregular migrants have a right to receive unpaid wages from unscrupulous employers, who also have to pay a fine. This case referred to claims by Albanian workers, who had been originally hired for farm work despite their illegal residence status, though they later secured legal rights of residence. As more and more European countries crack down on illegal employment, it is important that the workers themselves should not suffer from these measures. They are only responding to demand, usually doing the work rejected by the nationals of the countries in which they work. It is measures like this one adopted in Greece, which will stop greedy employers from abusing their vulnerability, and making sometimes huge profits at their expense.

The ILO is a tripartite organisation of governments, workers and employers. On complex issues like modern forced labour and trafficking, we believe strongly in social dialogue between the social partners. Important issues are the licensing and registration of recruitment agencies, controls over fee charging in order to avoid debt bondage situations, and also monitoring of their activities. We have an important Convention, adopted in 1997 on private employment agencies, which establishes the principle that employment agencies shall not charge any fees or costs to workers, save in exceptional circumstances after the government has consulted with employers’ and workers’ organisations. The Convention also calls for safeguards against the abuse of migrant workers, and for prohibition of the agencies which engage in fraudulent practices and abuse.

In my own country of origin, the United Kingdom, social dialogue led to a new law in 2004 to license the unregistered recruiters known as “gangmasters”, and the following year to a new government authority to monitor their activities and weed out abusive practices. The UK Trade Union Congress played a prominent role in pressing for this legislation and follow-up. Importantly though, consensus was generated between government, business and workers that an unregulated system was in nobody’s interest. Up to 2,000 of these informal labour brokers had been providing temporary work gangs to different employers, including supermarkets. Many of these were brought it from Central Europe and elsewhere, or formed part of the itinerant and irregular labour force within the UK. The death of 23 Chinese workers, drowned in early 2004, was the ultimate catalyst for the new law. The new Gangmasters Licensing Agency has now revoked many licenses, and this year instigated its first criminal prosecutions.

Trade unions can also conduct their awareness raising campaigns, provide direct support and protection, and in particular promote partnerships between unions in the sender and destination countries for migrant workers. Together with the International Trade Union Confederation and others we have been able to document an increasing amount of good trade union practice. Examples are the agreements between the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers and the unions of key destination countries for their migrant workers; the outreach by Belgian trade unions to domestic workers; a TUC toolkit on forced labour for union trainers; and the migrant information centres run by the Workers’ Commissions and the General Labour Union in Spain. I think it is best that the trade unions representatives here this week share their own information on such initiatives. I am certainly looking forward to learning more of initiatives by the Greek trade unions

In conclusion, I am glad that our Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour has been able to forge ever closer relationships with trade unionists worldwide, and to provide both financial and technical support to the ITUC efforts to promote a global Workers’ Alliance against Forced Labour and Trafficking. Intensified trade union involvement will be absolutely essential for meeting our goal of ending all forced labour over the next decade.

In academic life, I was a student of Greek language and literature, history and philosophy, and was always inspired by the richness of Greek culture and political democracy. I now look forward to being similarly inspired by the leadership of the Greek trade union movement, in working with the rest of Europe to build and implement the action programme that is urgently needed, to ensure that – very soon – we shall no longer have hundreds of thousands of workers subject to forced labour in the European cradle of democracy.

Thank you.

Roger Plant

Head, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour

International Labour Office

Geneva, Switzerland