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UN says 12.3 mln worldwide stuck in forced labour
Updated: 2005-05-11 20:08

Globalisation and the demand for cheap labour have helped force at least 12.3 million people into slave-like work worldwide and create a multi-billion-dollar human trafficking industry, a UN agency said on Wednesday.

The United Nations' International Labour Organisation (ILO) said the vast majority of them were in Asia and Latin America, many working in agriculture or imprisoned in camps.

Children are the hardest hit, comprising 40-50 percent of those in forced labour, it said in a report.

But sex workers in Western countries, recruited and shipped against their wills, comprised the single biggest money makers in the human trafficking industry, which generates $32 billion annually in profits, of which $28 billion in the sex trade.

While forced labour has traditionally been fuelled by poverty, class or race discrimination, economic globalisation now plays a key role, Patrick Belser, the ILO's anti-forced labour coordinator, told a press conference. "The traditional forms linked to discrimination, linked to poverty and linked to outmoded agrarian systems tend to diminish while those more modern forms of trafficking (influenced by globalisation) may very well be on the increase," Belser said.

Even major companies benefit from forced labour -- defined as work extracted under threat and against a person's will -- as subcontracting separates them increasingly from detailed knowledge of their supply chain, the ILO said.


Extreme price pressures on producers that have accompanied economic globalisation have led some contractors to employ forced labour to supply western companies, the ILO said.

"We have identified sectors where there is cause for concern that forced labour can be penetrating the supply chain of private companies, including quite major companies," said Roger Plant, director of the ILO anti-forced labour programme.

Some of them may not even be aware that their subcontractors have used slave labour, he said, declining to give names.

Huge wage differentials between industrialised and developing countries aggravate the problem of illegal work crews imported to undertake undesireable and dangerous tasks, highlighted by the 2004 deaths of 21 Chinese immigrants in Britain, drowned gathering shellfish on a beach, the ILO said.

"There is the risk that these problems could grow if there is not a balance between supply and demand," Plant said. "This is really creating a breeding grounds for trafficking."

The ILO report said 9.8 million of those in forced labour serve the private sector with 2.5 million forced to work by governments or military groups.

Myanmar, singled out by the ILO, and North Korea have come under UN and western pressure to dissolve forced-labour camps.

The Asia and Pacific region claimed 9.5 million in forced labour, followed by Latin America with 1.3 million, Sub-Saharan Africa with 660,000 and Europe and the US with 360,000.

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