Hope is worth much more than money


Head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour

When my plane landed in Cuiabá, the Southern Gate to the Brazilian Amazon, the heat almost took my breath away. My first stop was a major construction site where a new stadium is being built for the 2014 World Cup. During the following hours I learned about a fascinating initiative to prevent modern forms of slavery.

The idea of the project is simple but effective: workers who have been rescued from what is called “slave labour” in Brazil, or who are at risk of falling prey to exploitative labour practices, are offered a six-month vocational training course. Once they’ve completed the course, most of them are hired by companies under decent conditions of employment. The company building the stadium for the World cup is one of them.

Unscrupulous employers, who have been prosecuted for using “slave labour”, have to pay heavy fines for moral damages. These fines and a unique partnership with local business, including construction companies, cotton producers, and agricultural farms are the financial and economic backbone of the project. But of course this is not enough. Vital to its success is a strong public system and a strong commitment from those involved in the project, including the dynamic superintendent of the Ministry of Labour who started the project four years ago, a non-corruptible labour prosecutor who truly believes in what he does, and vocational trainers of the highest quality.

I talked to two workers who are now employed by the construction company. Both cut sugarcane before they were rescued by the labour inspectors, enrolled in the training programme and were re-employed. When I asked them about the difference between their previous and current job, they just shook their heads and struggled to find the right words: “It’s all different,” they said. “You can’t compare the two jobs. Now, we receive a regular wage and work regular hours.”

Preying on poverty and hope

What makes people stay in jobs that don’t pay enough to live and to work under humiliating and degrading conditions? When the ILO adopted its first Convention against forced labour in 1930, slavery had already been abolished but people were still trafficked or forced to work under different systems of servitude, bondage or institutions similar to slavery. Today, coercion is more subtle but it is not less effective. Poverty and the hope to find a better life elsewhere make people easy prey to deception and abuse. Workers who don’t know their rights can be threatened and intimidated, their debts are being manipulated and wages not paid. One worker told me: “Workers, who have been in slave labour, have nothing to lose.” But many of them have nothing to gain either if they denounce their exploiters. This is precisely why the initiative in Brazil can make such a big difference. It offers a real and viable alternative.

According to the ILO’s most recent count, there are almost 21 million women, men and children in forced labour. This represents about three in every 1,000 of today’s population and every single case has a devastating impact on an individual’s life. The vast majority of these cases are never identified and victims never receive justice. Women and girls are disproportionately affected.

A new momentum

Despite these staggering figures, dramatic changes have occurred within more than a decade. Brazil’s government was one of the first countries to publicly denounce slave labour in 1995. In 2000, the UN Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, entered into force, which led to sweeping legal changes in many countries. In 2011, for example, EU member States adopted new legislation that guarantees greater rights for trafficked victims – an issue that had been contested in previous years.

Last year, the Government of Myanmar, which had been sanctioned and isolated internationally for its use of forced labour, signed an agreement with the ILO to stop all forms of forced labour by 2015. Also in 2012, US President Obama called for stronger measures to abolish “modern forms of slavery”, a speech that was echoed by Australia’s Prime Minister last month. In the Middle East, some governments are now publicly discussing alternatives to the “kafala system”, which ties migrant workers to their “sponsors” and accords disproportionate power to employers.

Clearly, we have reached a new momentum in the global struggle against slavery. Pressure to change public policies is mounting. Such pressure was crucial when the British Parliament passed the bill that abolished the transatlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago, and it is equally important today. But it is not enough to call for an end of these intolerable forms of exploitation; we also need to think of how to do it.

Challenges for the future

Our understanding of the dimensions and structural causes of forced labour is still weak. We also know very little about the long-term impact of anti-forced labour initiatives. ILO research, grounded in practical experiences from countries around the world, can make the difference.

When I returned from Brazil, I couldn’t stop thinking that what had happened in Cuiabá should be possible elsewhere too. It’s important to share the lessons learned from these initiatives and to remind governments of their obligation to invest in the long-term prevention of forced labour. With the right strategy in place, preventing the problem is much more cost-effective than addressing its consequences. And the hope this brings to workers like the ones I met in Cuiabá is worth much more than money.

6 thoughts on “Hope is worth much more than money

  1. Great initiative. Investing in the long-term prevention of forced labour should be a bigger priority as there is over 20 million victims of human trafficking around the world.

  2. “One worker told me: “Workers, who have been in slave labour, have nothing to lose.” But many of them have nothing to gain either if they denounce their exploiters. ”

    Precarious jobs are often offered in developped countries as an alternative to employnessness. How should the contribution of the state look like to prevent a downgliding of these workers into poverty? Forbidding such jobs ?

    • Thank you for your comment, Margarete. In most developed economy, labour and criminal law provisions exist to ensure at least minimal working conditions. The key challenge is to properly enforce these provisions and to extend provisions to groups of vulnerable people, such as domestic workers or irregular migrants. A strong labour inspection system is essential for this purpose.

  3. I am very disturbed by forced labour or “modern slavery” in developping nations including Brazil, Myanmar and India. However I do not think that they are only out of national poverty, but the lack of ratification of ILO Convention on Abolition of Forced Labour (Nr. 105), UN Palermo Protocol against Human Trafficing, especially Women and Children and Supplementary Convention 1956 on Abolition of Slavery. It is important to know there are some nations of great economic scale that have not ratified those treaties.

  4. People with disabilities have always been involved into state programs for (occupational and medical therapy and rehabilitation) The actual legislation in my country makes me concerned about forced labour in this regard. I want to send you an email. Where could i address it to? Please do not publish this contribution to your blog. It is too sensible. Thanks in advance for your answer! Margarete Aulehla

  5. Forced labour seemingly has many dimensions which are poorly understood. I am often reflecting about such topics.. One dimension has been highlighted by Johan Galtung the peace researcher and scientist. He has highlighted that on the borders of a society – there would happen a loss/deteriorisation of “structure and culture” . Following this theory people who are marginalized in their societies are at increased risk of coming in a situation where for them structure (legal structures and help, but also structure of regular protected employment) vanishes. Also they have to be aware of a brutalizing living and working environment. At the borders of their societies there are such persons as victims of personal trafficking and forced labour; Everybody can take them for some job and finally to slavery. Such situations can be avoided by societies with awareness of such dangers. But societies also have to be aware of the conflicts which give such developments a drive.

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