What it really takes to end modern slavery

November 9, 2016

Adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2014, the Protocol enters into force on 9 November 2016. Rosinda Silva and Aurélie Hauchère Vuong, from the International Labour Office, explain why this date is important and what happens next.

Illustrations by Gill Button


Rosinda Silva and Aurélie Hauchère Vuong, ILO

What exactly does ‘entry into force’ mean?

Entry into force is very important because it marks the date from which the obligations of a legal text start to be effective for States that have formally accepted it, or in other words, that have ratified it. Each country which has ratified the Protocol now has to report on compliance with the resulting commitments. The text of the Protocol provides that it comes into force one year after its second ratification, that is on 9 November 2016, one year after its ratification by Norway, which was the second country to ratify it after Niger.

What happens next? How do you make sure that it’s not simply a signature on a piece of paper?

This signature symbolizes a real commitment. By ratifying the Protocol, countries undertake to apply it, or in other words to take the necessary measures to comply with the obligations set out in the Protocol.

To ensure that is the case, the ILO has a sophisticated supervisory system which ascertains that governments have indeed taken the necessary measures. The system is based on examining the reports supplied by countries on a regular basis, commenting on their action and raising questions, where necessary. The results of this supervision are public, which means that anyone, whether a journalist, NGO or a citizen, can see how a country is complying with its obligations.

I’m a little lost. Are we talking about forced labour, trafficking or modern slavery?

Well, these are terms that are sometimes used loosely to cover overlapping situations.

The ILO has been combating forced labour since the adoption of a Convention in 1930, which is almost universally ratified. The Convention defines forced labour as all work which is exacted under the menace of any penalty and for which that person has not offered her or himself voluntarily. Whenever these three elements are present – work, the absence of consent and the presence of a threat – forced labour can be said to exist.

Trafficking in persons was defined in 2000 by the Palermo Protocol as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, through the use of force, coercion, fraud or other means, for the purpose of exploitation.

Finally, modern slavery is a concept that does not have an international legal definition, but which is often used to describe situations of extreme exploitation.

How will the Protocol help to combat forced labour?

The Protocol will give new impetus to action to combat forced labour by requiring countries to take additional measures for the purpose of prevention, as well as to protect and assist victims, and enable them to have access to justice and compensation.

All this has to be done in a coordinated manner within the framework of a national plan or policy, in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations.

Finally, the supervisory system that we mentioned before means that it is possible to ensure that the commitment made by these countries is actually put into practice.

In your view, what are the main obstacles to eradicating forced labour?

The first difficulty is to detect situations of forced labour, and to identify and assist victims, who are usually in a situation of great vulnerability. They are not able to defend themselves, and sometimes not even to seek help.

Then there is the issue of impunity. In practice, the number of convictions is low compared with the number of victims. And yet punishing those responsible with imprisonment, high fines or the confiscation of their assets plays an important dissuasive role, particularly as we know that the profits from forced labour amount to 150 billion dollars a year. The corruption that exists in certain countries is also a real obstacle.

But if countries work together, it is possible to eradicate this evil.

And everyone has a role to play …

So it’s not only the responsibility of the State?

Yes and no. It is the decision of States to ratify the Protocol, and they are responsible for ensuring its application. But many other actors are also concerned.

In the first place, these include employers’ and workers’ organizations. In addition to being closely associated with the implementation of the Protocol, they participate in the ILO’s supervisory system, through which they can provide information on the manner in which a country is giving effect to its obligations.

The Protocol calls for due vigilance by public and private employers to prevent and respond to risks of forced labour.

The trade unions and labour inspection services also have a key role to play in the identification of victims. But other people may also be confronted with forced labour, and therefore need to be able to identify it, including police officers, lawyers and magistrates, social workers, journalists, carers and NGOs.

Finally, the ILO provides support to governments, employers and workers, to prevent and combat forced labour in all its forms. Through many projects the world over, the ILO is well aware of the reality of forced labour in practice, and is able to implement different types of approaches.

It is only by working together that it will be possible to eradicate forced labour once and for all.

And what can we do as individuals?

Change depends so much on you!

Be committed as citizens. Call on your country to ratify and apply the Protocol. Be a responsible consumer, and take time to find out how the goods that you use are produced.

Look out, in your everyday life, to see what is happening around you, in your neighbourhood, at your place of work. Learn to identify the signs of forced labour.

Become a member of a trade union or an NGO.

Sign up to the 50 for Freedom campaign and talk to friends and acquaintances about it.

The more we are, the more effective we’ll be in combating modern slavery.