Risk of forced labour rises as the crisis hits the most vulnerable

August 23, 2021

A recent ILO report highlights how the crisis has threatened the fundamental principles and rights at work – namely the freedom to organize and bargain collectively, and the freedom from forced labour, child labour, and discrimination in employment and occupation. However, these core labour standards constitute the foundation for building back a better, more just world of work in its aftermath.

Photo (header): Plantation and production of coffee, Viet Nam, 2021 (© ILO/Nguyễn ViệtThanh)
Featured image: Public works employee, France, 2020 (© ILO/M. Crozet)


For the millions of workers already in vulnerable situations, the COVID-19 crisis has devastating consequences.  In addition to the threat to public health, the economic and social disruption threatens the long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. Furthermore, their fundamental rights at work are under threat, pushing them and their families towards greater insecurity. Safeguarding and extending fundamental principles and rights at work will therefore be critical to the success of both immediate and longer-term responses to the crisis in the world of work.

The new ILO report demonstrates how the crisis is particularly affecting the fundamental labour rights of those who already belong to the most vulnerable and least protected people. We met the author of the report, Scott Lyon, senior researcher at the ILO, specialist on child labour and forced labour, to discuss in particular the impact of the crisis on forced labour.


50 for Freedom (50FF): Who are the persons most affected by the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis?

Scott Lyon (SL): The adverse effects of the crisis are not of course distributed equally. The crisis is particularly affecting groups who were already in situations of socio-economic vulnerability when the crisis struck. These include, above all, the hundreds of millions of workers worldwide eking out an existence in the informal economy, without social protection or representation, whose incomes have declined or disappeared altogether as a result of the pandemic. Groups already suffering discrimination in employment, including women, ethnic minorities, indigenous and tribal peoples, have also been disproportionately affected in many circumstances, as they often have insecure jobs in the informal economy. All of these workers are more vulnerable to being laid off in conditions of declining demand and often do not have savings to fall back on.

Migrant workers are another group adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis. They are among those most affected by the stigmatization and scapegoating associated with the virus, and are also among those disproportionately rendered unemployed or affected by worsening working conditions. At the same time, in many countries, they are denied protections under labour law that are enjoyed by local workers, and are excluded from policy measures designed to help workers cope with the pandemic.

50FF: Do we know what has been the impact of the pandemic on forced labour so far?

SL: There are different types of impact. First, we know that people in situations of socio-economic vulnerability and without alternative survival options or coping mechanisms are more at-risk of forced labour. We also know that socio-economic vulnerability has skyrocketed because of the COVID-19 crisis. Debt bondage in particular is a concern for the most vulnerable: some suddenly jobless workers, in urgent need of funds for household survival and without access to other forms of credit, must turn to predatory lenders for loans.

Second, the crisis is resulting in a deterioration of working conditions that are already exploitative, moving workers further along the continuum of abuse that ends in forced labour and trafficking. The economic upheaval associated with the COVID-19 crisis is also likely creating additional demand and opportunities for forced labour. There is a risk, for example, of some firms, strapped by financial struggles associated with the crisis, relaxing their labour standards or being pushed into the informal economy, where it is easier for forced labour to take root.

Third, the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the ability of State and non-State actors to provide support and protection to survivors, as resources and the attention of frontline actors are focused on the pandemic response.

50FF: Can we quantify this impact?

SL: While anecdotal evidence and local reports are fuelling fears of a rise in forced labour numbers, there have not yet been national surveys undertaken since the outbreak of the pandemic. It is therefore not possible to quantify the impact of the pandemic on forced labour in precise terms. A lack of exact numbers, of course, should not be an excuse for inaction. We do know with certainty that the risk of forced labour has risen dramatically, and urgent action is needed on multiple levels to mitigate this heightened risk.

50FF: What does it imply in terms of policy response to the crisis?

SL: Much of the answer lies in ensuring that forced labour considerations are mainstreamed and prioritised in wider crisis responses and post-crisis rebuilding efforts. For example, by extending social protection and income support to limit susceptibility to debt bondage; by reinforcing labour inspectorates’ capacity to proactively and strategically monitor sectors at high risk of child labour, forced labour and other human rights violations; by renewing efforts to build collective representation structures for workers and extend them to workers in the informal economy; and by ensuring that bespoke public payments supporting business solvency do not exclude the informal micro- and small enterprises operating at the lower levels of supply chains that have been devastated by the crisis and among which forced labour is most likely to take root. Critical in the acute phase of the crisis, such measures also have longer term relevance, as they address some of the key root causes of forced labour and protect the most vulnerable groups.

50FF: The report addresses the impact of COVID-19 on all fundamental principles and rights at work: the freedom from forced labour but also the right to organize and bargain collectively, the freedom from child labour, and the freedom from discrimination in employment and occupation. Why these core rights should be at the centre of the post-COVID-19 response?

SL: They are universal and inalienable human rights but they are also essential enablers of decent work and social justice. They are the starting point for a virtuous circle of effective social dialogue, better incomes and conditions for workers and employers, and formalizing the informal economy.

The report stresses that leaving no one behind – the overarching call of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – means putting the rights of the most vulnerable at the centre of the COVID-19 response in the world of work.



Read the full report here and the Q&A here.