Fighting Forced Labour


Biram Dah Abeid, son of a forced labourer and winner of the UN Human Rights Prize, sits in a Mauritanian prison for campaigning against what has virtually enslaved millions around the world.

Finally a ray of hope: neighbouring Niger has become the first country to sign a protocol updating the UN Forced Labour Convention.

It’s also the beginning of a long, hard fight: to get other countries to sign, ratify and put words to action.

“This gives hope to the millions of women, children and men still trapped in modern slavery,” said Guy Ryder, director general of the UN’s International Labour Organisation, after signing the protocol with Niger’s minister of employment, labour and social security, Salissou Ada.

“This signature is the logical next step in our efforts to fight this plague that is infecting our society,” said Ada of the protocol, which updates the 1930 Convention to fight 21st century human trafficking and exploitation.

The ceremony during the ILO’s 104th International Conference on Labour in Geneva this month marked the launch of a global campaign to get 50 countries to ratify the protocol by 2018, entitled “50 for Freedom.”

The protocol calls for national action plans to fight forced labour, including increased inspections and protection from unscrupulous recruiters and penalties for human traffickers.

It calls for compensation for victims of forced labour and allows a victim to sue even when not in the country where the abuse took place.

It targets not only governments, but private companies.


The battle ahead

The protocol enters into force when just two countries ratify it.

A number of European countries are seen as the next likely signatories. And they’re only the first steps in the campaign to get governments to observe and enforce the protocol.

Insiders speaking on anonymity say some countries may simply sign it to placate donor countries and then ignore it.

“This campaign needs to involve all actors in a country – government, NGOs, human rights activists, trade unions and the media,” says Jean-Marie Kagabo, Africa coordinator for the ILO Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL), in an interview with Equal Times.

Better education and job-training can help break the cycle of families trapped in virtual servitude for generations, efforts which Kagabo says require support from donor countries.


Giving 21 million people a voice

According to ILO estimates, 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour, generating US$150 billion annually in illegal profits.

Key sectors: agriculture, fishing, domestic work, construction, manufacturing and mining. Women and girls are forced into commercial sexual exploitation.

In Niger alone, a Danish Trade Union study estimates 59.000 adults are victims of forced labour, or 1.1 per cent of the total adult population. Nearly half are in domestic work, and nearly one-quarter are in agriculture or stock breeding.

The study notes an “absence of information” from Niger’s government on measures to combat slavery.

Nevertheless, Niger’s signature is a significant step, says Kagabo, expressing hope the African Union will put the issue on its agenda as well.

“Ten years ago in Niger it was taboo to talk about forced labour,” he says. “It’s great that Niger ratified. It can show other countries that yes, you can too.”