The challenges of reporting on forced labour and fair recruitment

May 5, 2021

The ILO has developed a new resource for journalists to accurately report on forced labour and fair recruitment, developed by Kevin Burden and Charles Autheman. They told us about the challenges faced by journalists when reporting on such sensitive topics and how this Toolkit can help.


The ILO recently launched a new resource: Reporting on forced labour and fair recruitment: An ILO toolkit for journalists (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic). Forced labour and fair recruitment are sensitive topics that pose many challenges to journalists that want to address them. A few weeks after we celebrated the first 50 ratifications of the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour, we discussed with Charles Autheman and Kevin Burden who developed the Toolkit. They explained to us how this interactive training tool provides journalists, students and other interested professionals with guidance on how to overcome these challenges and report accurately and effectively on forced labour.

Kevin Burden Charles Autheman

50 for Freedom (50FF): Charles, Kevin, you have co-authored this toolkit, can you tell us how your respective background are complementary?

Charles Autheman (CA): I have been working in development aid since my graduation, a little over a decade ago, and have gradually specialized on how journalists report on labour and migration issues. Organizing and facilitating training programs around the globe, I have met hundreds of journalists, many of whom have shared interesting insights on how to best report on these issues.

Kevin Burden (KB): I am a journalist and a journalism trainer. My goal is to raise standards of reporting in the media, especially on human rights, social and environmental issues. I was invited to be involved because of my work with the International Federation of Journalists. I am not a specialist of labour issues or migration, but I feel strongly that forced labour and fair recruitment are important issues for the media to report on.

50FF: Kevin, you have experience in working with journalists on important contemporary issues such as climate change or human rights. Why do you think issues like forced labour and fair recruitment are important for journalists?

KB: There is a saying that news is something that someone, somewhere does not want you to know – and all the rest is just advertising. Obviously it is an oversimplification, but I do believe that journalism has a purpose. It should be about exploring the choices that society makes and examining the consequences of those decisions. Journalism should point a spotlight at where things are going wrong in society. I want people to know that the person who is manicuring their nails might be forced to be there – or that their clothes or coffee or chocolate are produced by workers whose labour and fundamental rights are being abused. The public can only make proper decisions about what they buy, how they behave, and how they vote, when they are properly informed.

50FF: Charles, based on your experience, tell us about some of the challenges that journalists face when reporting on forced labour?

CA: When studies monitor how journalists report on migration, conclusions come up with regular pitfalls: stereotypes are common, appropriate terminology is not being used consistently and migrant voices are missing. My experience on the ground has led me to think that several factors can explain this situation. For journalists with scarce experience or training on migration, it is often hard to acquire all this knowledge, especially under harsh time constraints. In addition, reporting across borders can be costly and many media outlets lack resources to meet those expenses. Finally, editors can see labour migration as a sensitive topic and reporters sometimes express a lack of editorial support for their stories. Similar issues can be observed with forced labour.

Forced labour is also a complex phenomenon with a number of underlying dimensions: economic, cultural, political or legal. Forced labour happens behind closed doors, involving people who are physically, socially, culturally, linguistically and economically isolated. They are frightened to speak out and poorly equipped to do so. They do not have access to traditional support networks. Crime and even corruption are also very often involved, and that increases the danger to journalists who go digging around.

50FF: The toolkit dedicates an important section to journalists’ safety and security. Is reporting on forced labour dangerous?

KB: It is a sad fact that more journalists are killed because they have exposed crimes than are killed covering wars and armed conflicts. People who deal in the misery of other human beings are not scared to bully, threaten and even kill reporters who seek to expose their wrongdoing. What is worse, they very often get away with it, even murder, because such serious organized crime cannot take place unless law enforcement are somehow complicit or at least turn a blind eye.

Reporting on human rights abuses, such as forced labour, is a dangerous business. We therefore give advice in the toolkit to journalists on how they should carry out investigations safely, securely, legally and ethically. No news story is worth the cost of a human life – whether that life belongs to a journalist or an informant.

50FF: The toolkit is not only about writing on forced labour but also about showing forced labour. What is the role of images in informing on forced labour?

CA: Images play a key role in shaping public perception, especially nowadays with the rise of social media. When drafting the toolkit, we reached out to several photojournalists to better understand some of the ethical challenges they grapple with trying to raise awareness on abuses while protecting vulnerable sources of information. The advice they give is precious and can be of use for anyone interested in rethinking how images are used to illustrate such stories.

We also recommend in the toolkit considering other forms of art and illustration than photography. In the recent years we have seen some very creative work using animation, cartoons, drawings or paintings. These stories help the public visualize a given situation without further exposing forced labour survivors.

50FF: How was the toolkit received? Can you explain how it could make a real impact?

KB: We needed to convince reporters and their editors firstly that forced labour is an issue they should be reporting upon. And then we needed to show them how to do that, safely and effectively. So we found that we needed to advocate for coverage of the issue, and perhaps explain more about challenging, investigative journalism, than any of us had predicted at the start of the project. We spoke to many outstanding professionals who shared their experience and advice freely. Journalists spoke to journalists about journalism!

CA: Following the finalization of the toolkit, we have been active promoting it and adapting it to different contexts. As far as we know, it is the first publicly and globally available resource open to all journalists. It is free of charge and is now available in many languages and offers several national editions, contextualized to the specific situation of countries like Mongolia, Viet Nam or Pakistan. We are proud to have contributed to it!

To inform the wider media community, we have been organizing webinars and social media campaigns and the reception has been excellent. On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 2020 (30 July), we organized a global event with media professionals, civil society and employers’ and workers’ representatives. More recently, we have organized similar events in Spanish and Arabic. So far, we have already trained more than 360 journalists and students from 25 countries.

50FF: The toolkit was drafted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, would you think that things have changed since?

KB: The ILO has documented that the pandemic was particularly affecting the least protected people, increasing their vulnerability, and leading to an increase in child labour and forced labour. In the UK, we saw that a regional outbreak of COVID-19 was traced back to garment factories, where a largely migrant workforce was working under poor, unsafe, and often illegal, conditions for less than the legal minimum wage. There have been other outbreaks related to food processing, another industry which depends on a large, low-paid migrant workforce. The virus spreads in cool, cramped and unventilated spaces.

The pandemic has certainly harmed the ability of the media to carry out investigations. Reporters are working from home and unable to travel freely. And when revenues fall, as they have done sharply this year, media houses tend to cut back on investigative journalism, which is time-consuming and costly.

The need for reporting on forced labour has not reduced, but the ability to deliver it has.


Want to know more? Read our stories on journalism and forced labour: