Trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery are big business generating profits estimated at $150 billion a year, the UN labour agency said Tuesday.

The report by the International Labour Organization finds global profits from involuntary workers — an estimated 21 million of them — have more than tripled over the past decade from its estimate of at least $44 billion in 2005.

ILO Director Guy Ryder said his agency's report calls attention to the need "to eradicate this fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable practice as soon as possible."

The UN report takes a look at what it calls "modern slavery," which it says "has emerged as a catch-all [term] for forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and some of the worst forms of child labour."

Two-thirds of the profits from forced labour come from sexual exploitation, it says, and one third is the result of "forced economic exploitation" that includes domestic and agricultural workers.

Another classification of forced labour is bonded labour, also known as debt bondage. A person becomes a bonded labourer when they are forced to work to repay a debt imposed as a condition for getting a job.

With poorer and less-educated people more vulnerable to exploitation, Ryder said his agency "for the first time provides solid evidence for a correlation between forced labour and poverty" by taking a look at both the supply and demand for workers.

Since 2005, the International Labour Organization has classified forced labour in three main categories:

  • Forced labour imposed by the state, which covers all forms of work exacted by public authorities, military or paramilitary, compulsory participation in public works and forced prison labour (within the scope of ILO Conventions No. 29 and No. 105);
  • Forced labour imposed by private agents for sexual exploitation, which covers any commercial sexual activity, including pornography, exacted from the victim by fraud or force; and,
  • Forced labour imposed by private agents for labour exploitation includes bonded labour, forced domestic work, forced labour of migrants in many economic sectors and work imposed in the context of slavery or vestiges of slavery. Forced illicit activities such as forced begging for gangs for example are also included in this category.
    (Source: UN Profits and Poverty report)

"We need to strengthen social protection floors to prevent households from sliding into the poverty that pushes people into forced labour," he said. "We need to improve levels of education and literacy so that household decision-makers can understand their own vulnerability to forced labour and know their rights as workers.

It says 55 per cent of the victims are women and girls, primarily in commercial sexual exploitation and domestic work, while men and boys were primarily in forced economic exploitation in agriculture, construction and mining.