1. Types of forced labor
2. Measurement of forced labor
4. State-imposed forced labor in China and North Korea
There’s a difference between state-imposed forced labor – which usually takes places in prisons or labor camps – and private forced labor. The latter can either be illegal – such as some parts of the sex industry – or protected by governments. The Gulf states are notorious for government protected forced labor. Here’s something about Qatar:
Some 1.2 million foreign workers — mostly poor Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines — make up 94 percent of the labor force in Qatar … nearly five foreign workers for each Qatari citizen. … a worker cannot change jobs, leave the country, get a driver’s license, rent a home or open a checking account without the permission of his or her employer-sponsor, or kafeel. It’s not just housemaids and other low-skilled workers who are the victims. An Arab-American businessman, Nasser Beydoun, said he spent 685 days as an “economic hostage” in Doha. (source)
And that’s just one country. There are different types of forced labor, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims may be migrant workers who are forced to pay of the “debt” owed to those who have arranged their legal or illegal entry (often their employers). Or the victims are women and girls forced into prostitution. Sweatshop or farm workers are also in many cases forced to work by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing.
A lot of forced labor is related to migration: migrant workers seeking employment abroad – especially illegal migrants – often find that upon arrival their passports are taken away from them and they are forced to stay and work in order to pay off their debt, meaning the money they owe for transportation, accommodation and food. International sex trafficking is similar: this often involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to transport unwilling victims into sexual exploitation abroad. Many women start their journey voluntarily, and some even intend to work in the sex industry abroad, but upon arrival they are forced into practices that are coercive and inhuman. Again, traffickers steal the women’s passports and exploit their status of illegal immigrants to force them into unpaid prostitution.
It’s incredibly hard to have good numbers on any type of forced labor. You want to exclude willing sex workers who are simply traveling in search of a better income. How do you know which prostitute is willing and which isn’t? The same is true for sweatshop laborers whose alternatives are even more harmful. How to separate the willing sweatshop laborer from the modern slave in the service of international capital? State sponsored forced labor usually occurs in oppressive states where data is understandably scarce.
All these things make it hard to measure the phenomenon. In western countries, where there’s no state sponsored of government protected forced labor, the numbers depend on law enforcement. But that’s always tricky since conviction rates for any crime are less than 100%. In the case of exploited illegal immigrants, conviction rates are often a lot less than 100%. Illegal immigrants usually steer away from the police.
Hence the wide variety of estimates on the total numbers of people in forced labor. The United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are over 20 million forced laborers worldwide. By type of forced labor:
It’s mainly an Asian problem it seems:
The US State Department, on the other hand, puts the number a lot higher and estimates that, globally, there are up to 27 million victims of human trafficking. It defines human trafficking, much like the ILO, as the forced performance of a commercial sex act and as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
It’s estimated that 10,000 sex slaves are brought into the U.S. annually, but that number could be wrong (source). Usually, these numbers are extrapolated on the basis of the numbers of known cases, i.e. cases that have ended up with the police or in court. As victims of sex trafficking are particularly well hidden (it’s a type of crime that’s vastly underreported since the victims are under total control by their bosses) you need to multiply the known cases by a certain number, but that number is by definition a very rough guess.
Similar caveats are valid for estimates of the numbers of victim of other types of forced labor. More here.
There’s an interesting database here.
State-imposed forced labor is a problem in countries such as China and North Korea. In China, it is widely promoted and justified by the government through the doctrine of “reform through labor.” There is a
a vast network of prison labor camps known as Laogai across the country. Inmates are used to produce cheap commodities, which, although officially prohibited from exportation, are often indistinguishable from factory goods and continue to find their way into the global market (source).
It is estimated that in the last fifty years, more than 50 million people have been sent to laogai camps.
The North Korean camps are even more notorious. North Korea is estimated to have about 150,000 of its own citizens in a network of gulags across the country. Of the 35,000 or more prisoners at Yodok camp, about 10% died every year, succumbing to malnutrition, mistreatment, overwork or a combination of lethal factors (source). Some horror stories are here.