The exploitation of workers is a huge business worldwide.
People forced to work without pay collectively lose more than $20 billion a year in earnings, according to a report from the United Nations International Labour Organization released Tuesday.
Global profits from human trafficking and forced labor have reached $36 billion, according to the United Nations, and that sum is climbing.
“Forced labor is the antithesis of decent work,” ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said in a statement as the report became public. “It causes untold human suffering and steals from its victims.”
“It is the vulnerable who suffer the most” in times of economic crisis like the present, the report says.
It took years for governments to acknowledge the problem. Now the biggest challenges, officials say, are the implementation and enforcement of laws.
“Eighty percent of forced labor is in the private economy, but this is very, very rarely been prosecuted, if at all in most countries,” said Roger Plant, one of the authors of the ILO report.
Part of the problem is that the law is often hazy.
“There’s a whole lot of gray areas where intermediate agents, sub-brokers, are taking advantage of loopholes in the law in order to extract large amounts of money from vulnerable people, uninformed (people) who are going off to work in a country where they don’t speak the language,” Plant said.
But for him, the bottom line is clear.
“There is some absolutely flagrant forced labor where the offenders must be put behind bars. Forced labor is a serious criminal offense and must be treated as such,” he said.
Labor markets need a regulatory overhaul like the one financial markets are now facing, he argued.
“Because labor markets are too deregulated there are too many options for people to act in an unethical way,” he said.
“After the havoc in the financial markets, people are realizing they need some monitoring, licensing, regulation. You’ve got to do the same on the labor markets,” he said.
The ILO tried to set standards for private agencies that place workers, he said.
“But we’re finding is that there is a number of totally unknown, unlicensed and unregulated labor workers at the bottom end of the market, and there is broker after broker, intermediate after intermediate getting cash — getting some money from the worker,” he said. “Usually it is in the very much down the bottom in the informal sector, in the developing countries, but we are finding that sometimes this is pervading even larger recruitment agencies.”