A landmark treaty aimed at tackling the scourge of forced labour has been adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), updating the 84-year-old Forced Labour Convention.
The new legally-binding protocol was approved by a large majority, with 177 of the member states attending the annual International Labour Conference in Geneva voting in favour.
Only Thailand – which recently made international headlines following an exposé of slavery on board Thai fishing vessels – voted against the treaty.
Eight countries, including Qatar, abstained.
The treaty spells out ways to prevent forms of modern-day slavery as well as to protect and compensate victims.
Today there are an estimated 21 million people worldwide in exploitative work which they are unable to leave.
“The adoption of the forced labour convention brings the struggle against forced labour into the 21st century, recognising that the challenges of the contemporary globalised political economy are very different from the colonial era,” Aidan McQuade from Anti-Slavery International told Equal Times.
The original Forced Labour Convention was drawn up by the ILO in 1930, aimed primarily at preventing colonial-era governments from abusing workers.
According to the ILO, today more than half of the victims of forced labour are women and girls, primarily forced into domestic work and the sex trade.
Men and boys are frequently forced into economic exploitation in agriculture, construction, and mining.
People trapped in forced labour today are most likely to be migrants, indigenous peoples or other disadvantaged groups.
A recent ILO report estimated that forced labour generates about US$150 billion a year in illegal profits.
“Today too many countries and businesses have been using the lack of national and international rule of law against forced labour as a basis upon which to establish competitive advantage,” said McQuade.
“This has to end.”
“The new protocol is essential to that, asserting in international law the principles of past and present anti-slavery campaigns: that no amount of profit can condone the enslavement of human beings, and that all of us, governments, businesses, workers and citizens, have roles and responsibilities to end it.”
Jeroen Beirnaert, Forced Labour and Trafficking Project Coordinator at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said: “Following the increasing evidence of forced labour in the global economy, the almost unanimous vote for the adoption of a new binding treaty is a very strong political signal of renewed commitment of the international community to end forced labour.”
“It is a milestone new treaty that will promote strategies such as targeted organising of at-risk groups, licensing and monitoring of recruitment agencies, and supply chain accountability,” he said.
“The focus of state obligations is now on improving prevention, protection and access to remedy for victims.”
“But as with any international treaty, it will only be effective when it is adopted and transposed into national legislation and practice in all countries,” said Beirnaert.
“Only then can the new treaty fulfil its ambition of setting the new global standard: a total ban on forced labour.”
The bigger picture
The treaty will aim to help victims of human trafficking, a problem found in every country in the world.
It will also aim to help migrant workers and will target those who profit from their abuse.
But as Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, points out: “This is just one part of a much bigger picture of vicious exploitation in global supply chains.”
“The new ILO protocol must revitalise action to end forced labour, and we are putting those who make money from slavery on notice that the international trade union movement and our allies will chase them down and bring them to account.”
In Qatar, extensive research has revealed that large numbers of migrant workers, mainly in the construction industry, are being forced to stay and work against their will, with employers retaining salaries and passports, making it impossible for them to leave.
Workers also have to endure low pay, cramped and unsanitary living conditions and long hours of forced labour in temperatures of up to 50°C, without access to free drinking water.
A global campaign against Qatar has been launched following the controversial decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup.
The ITUC says Qatar’s World Cup construction work will cost the lives of at least 4,000 migrant workers.