21 Million People Around the World Work in Forced Labor; One Day to Fix It Is Not Enough

The U.N.’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery mobilized celebrities from Jada Pinkett Smith to Cher; institutions need to step up.

forced labor protesters

Some 21 million people are victims of forced labour across the world, according to the International Labour Organization. And that may be a lowball estimate. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images).

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

It was once a common platitude in international aid circles to say that anyone could be enslaved. The fear of so-called white slavery is what spawned the Liam Neeson movie Taken. A rich American girl is kidnapped while on holiday in Paris and is destined for a life of (sexual) servitude unless her father saves her.

“It's nonsensical in the extreme,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, a non-governmental agency that combats forced labor, tells TakePart. “Most people who are enslaved in the world today are people from vulnerable communities.”

And there are a lot of them: Some 21 million people are victims of forced labor across the world, according to the International Labour Organization, a U.N. agency that monitors labor practices around the world. These people are considered to be “trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave.”

MORE: How Many Slaves Do You Own?

The ILO’s estimate, which it released in June, was more than four times what it ballparked the forced labor population at in its last survey, conducted in 2005. One scary thing is that the higher estimate could be off—way off.

“We may very well have underestimated the problem in 2005 simple because of the methodology and the constraints, and it may also be possible that the 21 million is actually a conservative estimate and the actual number is higher,” Beate Andrees, a senior policy officer with the ILO’s program to combat forced labor, told TakePart in the leadup to the organization’s December 2 International Day for Abolition of Slavery.

Forced labor imposed by state authorities is going down, but forced labor related to migration is going up, she says, “simply because people are more mobile.”

“We do think that the economic crisis may aggravate the situation,” Andrees adds.

Part of the reason that the ILO’s estimate has solidified is that governments and activists are paying more attention to the problem.

But the awareness of international slavery continues to lag behind other multinational issues.

Just ask, say, an average first-year political science student at any U.S. college about forced labor, and you may hear that slavery was ended with the Civil War.

“It’s not as visible as it used to be,” says Andrees. “People are not held in chains. They’re not bought or sold in slave-labor markets.”

Detecting the problem requires digging a bit deeper.

“When you hire a domestic worker, or when you pick your strawberries or tomatoes in the supermarket, just think about where they’re coming from.”

“When you hire a domestic worker, or when you pick your strawberries or tomatoes in the supermarket, just think about where they’re coming from,” says the ILO policy officer. “Whether the workers that picked the tomatoes or the person that’s coming to clean your apartment is really in a position to demand a fair deal for their labor.”

Pushing the issue into the mainstream is the thinking behind events and announcements—such as Jada Pinkett Smith’s videotaped call for solidarity—that publicized December 2 as anti-slavery day.

December 2 was the date in 1949 when the U.N. General Assembly passed the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

“We’re trying to push this issue mainstream much, much more so that it becomes something that is a much more central concern to all of the big institutions in society, that they take up their portion of the load,” says McQuade, from his group’s London offices.

“Often times people say, ‘individuals can do this,’ ” he says. “Individuals can do bits and pieces, but it really is the movement of institutions that is going to make a difference in this.”

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