Forced labour in the private economy

Forced labour in the private economy

Domestic work

The domestic work sector, which accounted for 24 per cent of identified forced labour exploitation cases, is now receiving more attention for its employment potential but also for the abuses occurring within it, including extreme violence.

There has been a steady increase in the overall number of persons, mainly migrant women, seeking employment in this sector. Significantly, the ILO’s most recent global estimate of migrant workers has a special focus on migrant domestic workers.

Worldwide, there are currently an estimated 67 million domestic workers, of whom some 11.5 million are migrant domestic workers and almost three-quarters are women.

The Asia and the Pacific region hosts the largest share, with almost a quarter of the world’s female migrant domestic workers, followed by Europe with 22.1 per cent and the Arab States with 19 per cent. Moreover, high-income countries account for 9.1 million domestic workers globally, amounting to about 80 per cent of the total.

With a few exceptions, domestic workers are excluded from the protections in national labour laws. Common grievances have included unpaid wages, the withholding of wages, lack of overtime pay, long hours and heavy workloads, inadequacy of rest days, absence of health care and maternity leave, poor living conditions, and issues related to contracts and their termination. There has however been some progress in recent years, notably since the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) was adopted.

The coercion domestic workers often face, and which in many cases leads to forced labour situations, typically stems from recruitment and job placement mechanisms.

As has been widely documented, the fragmented nature of recruitment can lead to “excessive fees, working conditions akin to forced labour, contract substitution, visa trading, and ineffective complaint and grievance procedures”. Excessive recruitment fees are often transferred to workers in the form of direct payments, large loans requiring repayment at extremely high interest rates, or salary deduction schemes.

The situation can be exacerbated when migrant domestic workers are tied for a lengthy period of time to one employer by visa arrangements. In such situations, they may suffer restrictions on their freedom of movement, leaving them isolated and alone and with no effective remedy against abusive treatment.


In the construction industry, which is estimated to employ 7 per cent of the global work force and where 18 per cent of identified forced labour exploitation cases occurred, employment conditions are notoriously demanding and dangerous, with high levels of industrial accidents. However, there are indications that the use of bogus “self-employment” schemes have contributed to the growth of coercive practices.


In the manufacturing sector, which made up 15 per cent of identified forced labour exploitation cases, coercion has been documented mainly in the lower-income countries.

While attention has long focused on the abuses in small garment or footwear factories in the largely informal sector of the South Asian countries, growing awareness of global supply chain risks has led to coercion being detected in the production of a range of products that until recently had escaped public attention. Just one example is the manufacture of garments for medical use – a large global industry producing some 150 billion pairs of gloves per year and with a market value of more than US$ 5 billion – for which most production is outsourced to factories in Asia that rely on migrant workers. The documented concerns at many of these factories include excessive working hours and production targets, payment of high recruitment fees, illegal retention of passports, and in some cases illegal imprisonment and beatings of workers. At the higher end of the manufacturing scale, abuses in the electrical and electronics industry have also received global attention, with some major electronics, telecommunications, and technology brands encountering criticism over labour exploitation, including forced labour, in their supply chains.

Another high-profile issue involves pressure on high-tech companies to ensure that their products do not contain minerals – such as tantalum, tungsten, and cassiterite – that are produced in conflict zones where forced labour may have been imposed by rebel groups.

Commercial agriculture and fishing

Commercial agriculture is part of the broader agriculture and fishing sector, where 12 per cent of identified forced labour exploitation cases occurred. Much of the low paid work in commercial agriculture is seasonal, meaning that the coercion may be of short duration. A common feature is the presence of labour providers, who can be employment as well as recruitment agents, generally responsible for the payment and working conditions of the workforce. Known by a multiplicity of names, illegitimate agents have been widely responsible for the typical range of abuses such as non-payment or late payment of wages, restriction on physical movement, violence, and threats. Moreover, cases of such abuse have been widely documented in the agricultural sector of the wealthier as well as poorer countries.

The seafood industry, which is part of the larger agriculture and fishing sector, has also drawn international attention, particularly after media reporting in 2014 named specific companies alleged to be tainted with slavery in their supply chains.

The most severe cases, documented on some deep-sea fishing vessels in the Asian region, have involved physical brutality and even loss of life. Yet this industry poses unique challenges for preventing abuses. Difficult conditions are inherent to the fishing industry, which typically involves long hours of work and strenuous activity in a challenging marine environment. On top of this, the proliferation of modern factory ships and the globalisation of the fishing industry have greatly complicated efforts to protect workers on vessels, which may be at sea for long periods, in distant fishing grounds, and well beyond the reach of national labour inspection systems.

Migrant workers are at an especially high risk of coercion in this industry. They are increasingly manning vessels operating out of a wide range of both developed and developing countries, largely because nationals of these countries find the salaries too low for the rigorous work and the lengthy periods at sea.

And in many cases the entire business operation is illegal (involving illegal brokerage and illegal fishing in addition to serious violations of labour law), and the vessel owners can use undocumented migrants both to cut costs and to escape the attention of law enforcement authorities.

Recently, IOM’s Global Assistance Fund for victims of trafficking and other migrants in vulnerable situations contributed to assisting 600 men from foreign fishing boats in Indonesian waters. Some had not been on dry land for years. One of the victims had been separated from his family, without any contact, for 22 years.

Apart from the abuses against fishers at sea, coercive practices have also been documented in other industry activities including onshore seafood processing.

The risks of abuse are highest when there is extensive use of contract labour, and notably when temporary workers are recruited from abroad under special visa arrangements.

Many migrant fishers enter the destination country through networks of recruitment agents, often incurring high brokerage fees, even when they are engaged through legally recognise recruitment agencies, leading to personal debts that must be repaid through deductions from wages. And when the labour brokerage is informal and the workers have no contracts of employment, there is considerable risk of further abuse.


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