Panel Report: Forced Labor Around the World

There has been a major increase in the number of people forced into forms of modern-day slavery in recent years. Last week on Thursday September 15th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a panel event detailing the latest report on the subject by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The findings highlighted an estimated and alarming 50 million modern slavery cases worldwide in 2021. The discussion delved into the global manifestation of modern slavery, looked at how the situation has evolved, and what remains to be done. The panel included Michaelle De Cock, the Head of the Research and Evaluation Unit at the International Labor Organization; as well as John Leonard, the Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner for Trade for U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and Marcia Eugenio, the Director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking at the U.S. Department of Labor. The discussion was mediated by Marti Flacks, the Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and Director of the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS.

Forced labor, sexual exploitation, and forced marriages are the most common forms of modern-day slavery. This is not an issue specific to any region; it occurs in every country and can be found across the world. Women, children, and migrant workers are the most vulnerable groups to this societal ill. 86% of forced labor is found in the private sector, and sexual exploitation accounts for 23% of all forced labor. Modern slavery is a man-made problem stemming from the history of the slave trade and persistent inequality throughout the world.

From the beginning of the talk, lead researcher De Cock hammered several important points home. She began by stressing that forced labor and marriage occur in every country, amidst all ages, and in every sector. Quickly, however, she began to break down some of the interesting trends revealed by this year’s report. For example, the sectors in which forced labor occurs and the means of coercion vary greatly between men and women. Men tend to work in the manufacturing and construction industries, whereas women typically labor in the home and in agriculture. On top of that, men and women tend to be coerced into forced labor or marriage through different means. Women are typically isolated, and/or threats are made against their families. De Cock did not elaborate on how men are typically recruited. She then spoke about the fact that migrant workers are three times as likely to be pushed into forced labor and used this fact to transition to her discussion on how to reduce forced labor. According to De Cock, the ILO has found that structure is very important in preventing forced labor. Structure provides accountability, protecting workers from the whims of their bosses. This is especially important for migrant workers, for whom it can be difficult to ascertain the level of legitimacy of a job offer and become isolated from a support network once arriving on-site. Unsurprisingly, her second point was that it is important to mitigate isolation as much as possible for workers. De Cock concluded her opening remarks by commenting that “social protection and forced labor are directly related,” pointing to the power that labor unions and other such organizations have in preventing forced labor.

After De Cock spoke, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Leonard was given the floor. Being that Leonard’s expertise comes from the law enforcement side of the issue, his comments were significantly different from those of De Cock. Leonard’s discussion of the removal of the consumptive demand clause from the Tariff Act was of particular note. The clause stated that imported goods produced by forced labor could be allowed into the United States so long as the good was considered a necessity. Leonard said that the removal of that clause has enabled Customs and Border Patrol to play their role in preventing forced labor much more effectively, as has the more recent Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which has made it drastically harder for goods produced by forced labor to come out of Xinjiang – a region in China that is infamous for its forced labor and human rights violations against the Uyghur minority group. According to Leonard, companies are quickly abandoning the area altogether because the new law enforcement strategies have been so successful.

The last to speak was Director Marcia Eugenio from the Department of Labor. Eugenio mostly echoed the main points made by De Cock, but focused on solutions to the problem more than the current state of the situation. Eugenio emphasized the importance of more funding, research, targeted programs, and most importantly, social protection and the uplifting of workers’ voices. Later in the discussion, De Cock went into more detail about the ILO’s process for intervention in forced labor cases, which includes detecting and measuring the issue and then reaching out to the oppressors by explaining not only the moral failings of their actions, but also the production benefit of eliminating forced labor. Eugenio also called for a renewal by the international community of its commitment to ending forced labor and marriage, which it seems is a requirement given that the current agreement lasts only until 2030, and the situation has continued to decline over the preceding years.