At the International Labour Conference in June this year, governments, workers and employers adopted a new Protocol against forced labour, supplemented by a Recommendation, which has been hailed around the world as a landmark treaty to protect human rights. The new instruments received overwhelming support from governments, workers and employers with 437 votes in favour, and only a handful of abstentions or votes against.
The Protocol builds on one of the oldest and widely ratified ILO conventions, the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), which was passed in 1930. The initial aim of Convention 29 was to progressively abolish forced labour in colonial territories. As a result, it allowed for a transition period during which states could still make limited use of forced labour.
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While the deletion of those provisions will perhaps become a footnote in history, the articles on victim protection, remedies and prevention could potentially change the lives of millions of people who are trafficked, held in slavery-like conditions or are otherwise subjected to forced labour.
For example, the Protocol contains a ground-breaking article to ensure that victims have access to remedies, such as compensation, regardless of their presence or legal status in the country where they were forced to work. Governments should also ensure that authorities are entitled not to prosecute victims for unlawful acts they may have committed as a consequence of being in forced labour, such as violation of laws on prostitution or immigration.
There was also broad agreement among delegates about the importance of prevention—which is at the heart of ILO’s Decent Work Agenda—through education, social protection, regulation of recruitment and other measures.
All of these aspects are critical to tackling what has become a very big business. The ILO recently estimated that the illicit profits of forced labour amount to over US $150 billion per year. Workers in forced labour forego billions of dollars in unpaid wages and illegal recruitment fees. Law-abiding employers have an interest in fighting this unfair competition and in mitigating the reputational risks from dealing with unscrupulous suppliers.
“The process leading up to adoption was ILO tripartism functioning at its best and a clear demonstration that treaty-making has not gone out of fashion.”
The process leading up to adoption was ILO tripartism functioning at its best and a clear demonstration that treaty-making has not gone out of fashion. Many people were involved in this process: workers, employers, government representatives, partners within the UN system, NGO advocates, lawyers, academics, journalists, ILO officials working behind the scenes and ordinary women, men and young people who sent more than 60,000 letters to their governments before the conference began.
There were moments of exaltation but also of uncertainty. Despite across-the-board agreement that new standards were necessary to modernise the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, many considered a non-binding Recommendation a more suitable instrument. The position evolved during the negotiation process, with the supporters of a Protocol eventually gaining the upper hand. Emotions also ran high when the Committee discussed a possible provision on due diligence in global supply chains. The chair and vice-chairs navigated skilfully through these tensions and eventually consensus prevailed.
Will the new Protocol and Recommendation make a difference in the global struggle against forced labour? Their holistic approach—covering prosecution, prevention, protection and compensation adds clear value to existing treaties. By laying out new strategies to combat forced labour, they can become a catalyst for change.
Much will depend on whether countries ratify the Protocol and whether policymakers and other stakeholders will take the new standards on board. After all, international treaties are only as effective as are the people who bring them to life. A growing movement against slavery has now emerged, from the parliament to the boardroom and across the Web as millions of workers and citizens get involved.
Ultimately, they are the ones who will make the difference.