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‘Modern Slavery’ Is Now A $150 Billion-A-Year Industry, According To A New UN Report
May 20, 2014
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An Indonesian porter carries a sack of cashew nuts to load on a truck at Paotere Harbor. He gets paid for his work (about $1-$2 a day) but there are an estimated 21 million people worldwide who work similar jobs involuntarily. (Photo: Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

According to a new report released this morning by the International Labour Organization, profits from involuntary workers have tripled over the past decade, reaching about $150 billion a year.

The report, titled Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, estimates that there are currently about 21 million involuntary workers worldwide. In the report this is referred to as "modern slavery," which "has emerged as a catch-all [term] for forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and some of the worst forms of child labour." Of that group, about 14.2 million people are forced to work in agriculture, construction, mining, domestic care or other physically exhausting forms of labour, while an estimated 4.5 million people are sexually exploited. About 2.2 million people are forced into labour by various states, including prisoners and people forced to work by military or paramilitary forces.

According to the ILO, "men and women, boys and girls were considered as being in forced labour whenever the work was involuntary as a result of force, fraud or deception, and a penalty or threat of a penalty was used to coerce them or their parents in the case of children below the age of 18."

Of the estimated  $150 billion-a-year profits, most of that money — about $99 billion — is thought to come from the sex trade. About 55 per cent of forced labourers are women or girls.

“Profits per victim are highest in forced sexual exploitation, which can be explained by the demand for such services and the prices that clients are willing to pay, and by the low capital investments and low operating costs associated with this activity,” the report said. “With a global average profit of US$21,800 per year per victim, this sector is six times more profitable than all other forms of forced labour, and five times more profitable than forced labour exploitation outside domestic work.”

The ILO used data collected between 2011 and 2012, and built on studies conducted over the past decade. The goal of the report is to show a definitive correlation between poverty and forced labour.

The report found that more than half the world's forced labourers are working in or trafficked to Asia. About 18 per cent are thought to be in Africa and 10 per cent in Latin America. The European Union accounts for about seven per cent of the trade, while central and eastern Europe make up another seven per cent and the Middle East about three per cent.

While the statistics are grim, the ILO report concludes by restating the need to address the root causes that lead to forced labour around the world — specifically poverty, which it sees as the single largest factor.

"We need to strengthen social protection floors to prevent households from sliding into the poverty that pushes people into forced labour," said Guy Ryder, director-general of the United Nations labour agency. "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."

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