Millions of forced labourers around the world generate £89.5 billion in illegal profits for their bosses every year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said today.
Nearly 21 million men, women and children are locked into forced labour, with many coerced into working as prostitutes, trafficked or held in debt bondage, according to the United Nations body.
“Forced labour is bad for business, bad for development and especially bad for its victims,” said ILO chief Guy Ryder, stressing the need to “eradicate this fundamentally evil but hugely profitable practice as soon as possible.”
Some 18.7 million people in the private sector rake in £89.5 billion each year for their exploiters, the ILO said.
Two thirds of that amount is made from sexual exploitation and the rest from forced economic exploitation such as domestic and agricultural work.
“Unscrupulous employers and criminals reap huge profits from illegal forced labour,” the UN agency said, warning the problem risked “growing in extent and profitability.”
A further 2.2 million people are forced to work for the state, including in prisons and by the military.
Among the victims — 5.5 million of them children — “many don’t earn anything,” ILO programme head Beate Andrees said.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to more than half of forced workers worldwide, around 11.7 million people.
Africa is next, with 3.7 million forced labourers, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 1.8 million.
An estimated 600,000 are also forced to work in the Middle East.
Developed economies have an estimated 1.5 million people forced to work, but their services are more valuable, with ruthless bosses there jointly making £28 billion from illegal workers.
Ms Andrees said progress had been made in reining in state-imposed forced labour, but stressed the need to focus on forced labour in the private sector.
ILO expert Corinne Vargha said the group’s Forced Labour Convention, which mainly addresses state-coerced labour, may not be up to the task.
A protocol to target forced labour in the private sector is set to be discussed during the next ILO general assembly from May 28 to June 12.