GENEVA — The United Nations’ International Labor Organization told senior officials from 178 countries here last week that it needs a commitment of $10 million in the next few months to start a program intended to combat the growing use of forced labor.
Globalization of the apparel and textile industry has worsened exploitation through forced labor, according to an ILO report last month. More than 12.3 million people, many of them children, are victims of forced labor. The practice is most pervasive in Asia, where sectors such as textiles and apparel and carpet weaving are marked by sweatshop conditions.
The textiles and apparel sector lends itself to “ethnic niches,” where migrants set up clandestine enterprises that bypass national regulations. Workers in the migrants’ home countries are recruited under misleading terms and upon arrival receive lower wages than agreed to, and end up in debt-bondage situations. Migrant Chinese are particularly at risk because they are unaware of their rights in those countries and fear deportation to China.
Roger Plant, chief of the ILO program to combat forced labor, told reporters the agency would call a donor conference in October and seek commitments of $100 million for a 10-year drive to eradicate forced labor, and also intends to hold a high-level conference in 2006 to spotlight the issue.
The report, “A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor,” was a follow-up to the “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” adopted by the ILO in 1998. Two teams of researchers worked independently, using a range of ILO and non-ILO sources, including reports by international organizations, governments, police, trade unions, local and international nongovernmental organizations, academia and the media.
More than 260,000 people in China alone were detained without due process under the reeducation through labor system, a form of prison labor, the study said. The ILO estimated that total illicit profits from these abuses are $32 billion, or about $13,000 from every single trafficked forced laborer.
ILO analysts estimate that 9.5 million forced laborers are in Asia — with large numbers in India, Pakistan, China and Myanmar — 1.3 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 660,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, 210,000 in the Middle East and North Africa, 360,000 in rich industrialized countries and 210,000 in transition economies. It is estimated that 40 percent of the forced laborers are children.
The ILO is seeking to build global awareness of forced labor and called for an alliance of governments, employers, labor unions, financial and aid agencies and civil groups to strengthen national policies and laws and toughen enforcement. The ILO is trying to address the problem through its effort to combat forced labor and also through the International Program to Eliminate Child Labor. The U.S. is a contributor to both programs and in the last fiscal year provided $45 million for IPEC alone, U.S. officials said.
Governments, including those of India and Pakistan, are also increasing enforcement efforts to curtail the abusive practice. The administration of President Lula de Silva in Brazil has also ushered in laws to combat forced labor, including the confiscation of the assets of people convicted of forced labor practices.