Forced Labor in the World: Of Injustice and Profit


Forced labor is a part of almost all current forms of slavery and is the most extreme way that individuals are used for monetary gain, profit, or other purposes. The International Labour Organization defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Any task or service that people are coerced into performing against their will, usually under threat of punishment, is considered forced labor. Forced labour affects at least 27.6 million people worldwide – with at least 17.3 million people experiencing forced labour exploitation in the private economy, nearly 4 million people in state-imposed forced labour, and over 6 million people suffering from commercial sexual exploitation. The majority of forced labor exploitation occurs in sectors of the economy where there is little regulation or informal structure. Compared to other workers, migrant workers are far more likely to be victims of forced labor exploitation. They are frequently singled out because they might not know the language, have fewer social networks to rely on, have little legal rights, and are reliant on their employers for necessities like food, housing, and the ability to legally stay in the nation. This brief sheds light on the injustice deeply embroiled in forced labor and the negative effects on the workers.

Historical Examples of Forced Labour

Instances from the past and present explore the development of forced labor. The legacy of forced labor haunts cultures around the world, from the exploitative practices of ancient civilizations to contemporary times. One of Belgium’s initial colonial strategies after taking over Rwanda and Burundi was to subsidize coffee cultivation to tax coffee revenues. The sustainability of the economy was harmed by forced labor, which directly reduced income. In Rwanda, forced labor is still practiced today. The 2023 Global Slavery Index estimates that at any given time in 2021, 4.3 out of every 1,000 Rwandans were victims of modern slavery. Around, 55,000 individuals in Rwanda were subjected to forced labor or forced marriage in 2021. Rwanda is ranked 28th in Africa and 101st worldwide in terms of the frequency of modern slavery.

Slavery is the United States “original sin” and was accepted at the time of the country’s independence in 1776. Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were transported to the “New World,” with the majority of the enslaved individuals arriving in what would become the United States. The majority of slaves endured brutal torture in addition to being made to labor in difficult circumstances. Guns and whips were the secret weapons for increasing output.

Millions of Jews were brutally forced to work as slaves by the Nazis. Since the first Nazi concentration camps and detention centers were established in the winter of 1933, forced labor has been an integral part of the concentration camp routine. The Nazis forced Jewish civilians to work as slaves both inside and outside the concentration camps even before the war started. The Nazis began using the forced labor of alleged “enemies of the state” for economic benefit and to fill severe labor shortages as early as 1937 and were forced to work as slaves for different government departments.

Contemporary Examples of Forced Labour

The history of forced labor is lengthy and tainted by colonialism, power struggles, and economic inequality. And to this day this practice is very much prevalent which has resulted in cycles of exploitation and oppression. Forced labor victims in the United States are drawn from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Most of them are “trafficked” from at least 35 different countries, and as a result of pressure, fraud, or force, they work against their will in the  United States. The majority of the victims are Chinese, then Mexican and Vietnamese. Some victims are forced into slavery using dishonest or misleading tactics even if they were born and reared in the United States. These businesses flourish in states like California, Florida, New York, Texas, and others that have substantial immigrant populations and high population densities. In 2004, Prostitution and sex services (46%), domestic service (27%), agriculture (10%), sweatshop/factory (5%), and restaurant and hotel employment (4%) were the five industries in the U.S. economy where forced labor is most common.

For millions of Palestinians living in rural areas who have lost their traditional means of subsistence and are unable to travel freely to seek jobs in Palestinian cities. As a result, settlement work has emerged as their only means of consistently supporting their families. They find jobs in the settlements and start doing regular labor in factories, farms, and building sites. They either dash past Israeli military watchtowers/army jeeps or climb over the apartheid wall to get to the working fields and workers who are discovered by the military run the risk of being shot to death or being detained and imprisoned indefinitely. In the occupied West Bank, hundreds of Palestinian youngsters labor on Israeli settlement farms, most of which are found in the Jordan Valley. For a full workday, 11-year-old Palestinian children in the settlement agriculture sector make about US $19. Many people quit their jobs and labor in unsafe environments where heat, pesticides, and machinery are present. Israel has attempted to exploit Palestinian natural resources, including water, raw minerals, and land, for its settlement project.

ILO’s report, titled Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor, estimates that traffickers and criminals are generating close to $10,000 in profit per victim, up from $8,269 in 2014, adjusted for inflation. With an annual illicit profit from forced labor of $84 billion, Europe and Central Asia top the list. Asia and the Pacific come in second with $62 billion in total revenues. The industry sector is said to have the highest rates of illicit profit from forced labor, with a total of $35 billion in revenues annually. The services industry, which makes $20.8 billion in profit annually, and agriculture, which benefits from forced labor to the tune of $5 billion, come next. The report claims that over the last ten years, the illicit profit from forced labor has increased by 37 percent to $236 billion annually, with sexual exploitation contributing roughly three-quarters of this amount. The world economy bears a significant cost from forced labor. It impedes entrepreneurship, distorts labor markets, and suppresses wages, all of which contribute to sustainable development. Resources that could be used to get rid of forced labor are diverted, which hinders the growth of the economy and the eradication of poverty.

It is not an easy task to stop this never-ending cycle of exploitation and poverty, perpetuated by forced labor. Forced labor victims and their families deal with a variety of socioeconomic challenges, for example- lack of access to basic human rights like healthcare, and education. The physical and psychological toll endured by the victims and their families is profound. Forced labor denies individuals the opportunity to pursue their dreams and potential and also hampers social mobility. Furthermore, it creates social injustice, inequalities, and insecurity and erodes trust in institutions involved both in forced labor and in safeguarding the rights of abused workers. Forced labour violates fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom, dignity, and fair labour practices. It undermines the principles of freedom and autonomy, which are essential for individuals to live fulfilling lives. Forced labour often involves harsh working conditions, long hours, and little to no rest. This can lead to physical health problems and trigger anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues.

The disparity between the rich and the poor class is getting wider because of this exploitation. Businesses or industries that use forced labor have an unfair competitive edge over those that follow moral and legal labor rules. This can cause economic distortions and undercut honest competition in the market. In groups and societies, forced labor has the potential to sabotage social cohesiveness. When people are forced to work in remote areas or are trafficked, families may be split apart, which can cause problems for support networks and communities. Forced labor frequently takes place in the backdrop of unlawful or illegal operations, including organized crime, human trafficking, and black-market businesses. Perpetuating forced labor adds to the breakdown of the rule of law and the continuation of these illicit activities. Sustainable development efforts are hampered in areas where forced labor is common. It limits prospects for social and economic advancement and lowers productivity.

Forced labour, encompassing exploitation through coercion or threat, spans diverse industries and regions, including agriculture, construction, manufacturing, domestic work, and the sex industry. Its historical roots intertwine with power dynamics, colonialism, and economic disparities, persisting today due to poverty, inequality, and social marginalization. Economic globalization amplifies the challenge, as supply chains stretch across borders, often obscuring labour origins. Governments, NGOs, and corporations play pivotal roles in combatting forced labour through legislation, enforcement, awareness-raising, and supply chain management. Education is vital in prevention, while rehabilitation programs aid survivors. Challenges include legal complexities, underreporting, and balancing economic interests with human rights. Innovation, international cooperation, and continued advocacy offer hope for the future eradication of forced labour, where individuals’ rights and dignity are the priority.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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