Migrant Workers

Tipping Point? Could the new ILO protocol on forced labour and human trafficking make a lasting diff

Commentary, 25 June 2014

By Neill Wilkins, Head of Migrant Workers Programme, IHRB

The International Labour Conference has voted 437 to 8 to adopt a new protocol on forced labour. Delegates have hailed the move as a tipping point in the fight against contemporary forms of forced labour.

Last week the US State Department produced its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The TIP report, as it is known, ranks 188 countries according to the prevalence of forced labour and trafficking and their efforts to curb it.

The global nature of modern business has seen increased fluidity of capital and labour around the world and the report once again illustrates the ubiquity of trafficking and forced labour in what many might consider to be modern economies, with exploitation being found across both the global North and South. The ILO estimates there are 21 million people around the world trapped in forced labour, generating $150 billion per year.

Of particular significance in this year’s report is the downgrading of Thailand, where activists have consistently documented appalling human rights abuses within the fishing industry, and Qatar where forced and trafficked labour is a significant part of construction work for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Malaysia, home to suppliers of many well know global brands, has also been downgraded.

The US report follows a recent decision by the ILO International Labour Conference to adopt a new legally binding Protocol on Forced Labour and Trafficking. The agreement updates the existing 84 year-old Forced Labour Convention 29 to address the realities of globalised economies in the 21st century. It strengthens the international legal framework by creating new obligations to prevent forced labour, to protect victims and to provide access to remedy. At an intergovernmental level this will encourage bilateral and multi-lateral agreements between governments to work together on eradicating forced labour. It also makes a clear link between forced labour and trafficking and of particular note, it requires governments to take measures to better protect workers, in particular migrant low skilled workers, from fraudulent and abusive recruitment practices.


Given the comments in the US report, it is noteworthy that Thailand found itself faced with severe criticisms for being the only country to vote against the new ILO protocol, while a number of Gulf states, including Qatar, abstained. The storm of criticism Thailand faced saw it reverse its decision on the protocol a few days later.

It should be stressed that the new protocol was approved by a large majority of the 177 states attending and is a significant development in the fight against modern day slavery.

The consensus and overwhelming endorsement of the new protocol clearly underlines the increased prominence of forced labour in global supply chains as a key issue of concern for governments and hopefully reflects a commitment to seek change.

It is this commitment to actively challenge and change flawed and illegal processes, which we must now ensure. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, reaffirm the state duty to protect against human rights abuses caused by or involving non-state actors such as businesses. As the ILO protocol goes through its ratification process, the resources needed to ensure its delivery around the world must be put in place. It is vital that governments now match their rhetoric with national legislation and, most importantly, effective enforcement. This is needed not only to protect the victims of forced labour and trafficking but also to prevent law-abiding business being undercut by unscrupulous and illegal competition.

The recent example of the draft UK Modern Slavery Bill, which has been stripped of anything like the robust response needed in relation to enforcement activity and supply chain transparency, does not perhaps encourage confidence. The new ILO protocol will strengthen the hand of those seeking meaningful inclusions in similar legislation around the world going forward.

As well as ensuring best practice in their own supply chains, for instance by adhering to the Dhaka Principles for Migration With Dignity, there is also a role for business to use their individual or collective leverage to effect change within their sectors and at local, national and inter-governmental level. Earlier this year in London IHRB, Humanity United and The Guardian jointly convened The Global Supply Chains Summit bringing together a range of both civil society actors and representatives from global business to discuss forced labour and trafficking and share examples of business led initiatives.

But we also shouldn’t forget the role of the state itself as a purchaser of goods and services. Public procurement accounts for 12% of GDP in OECD countries, the US government alone spending $ 350 billion annually, and a further 100 billion Euros in the European Community. Public procurement offers governments a chance to set a high bar for those bidding for state contracts and to demonstrate their commitment to eradicate trafficking and forced labour within their own supply chains. As has been discovered in the case of The US Executive Order to Prevent Trafficking in Federal Contracts, it can also serve to expose the gaps and failings of existing legislation and enforcement and the limited understanding and response to the issue from many business actors. 

To better understand how states are implicated through their own supply chains and the role they may play in addressing forced labour and trafficking through procurement and other economic tools, IHRB is developing a new project focused on the role of public procurement in this area. Our aim is to look in particular at this question from the perspective of our developing work around mega-sporting events. We would welcome input from any organisations or businesses who have experience in this area.

The shocking prevalence and scale of forced labour and trafficking is finally beginning to receive the global attention needed to effectively combat the problem. The new ILO Protocol is a significant and very welcome development in its prevention. But more work is required to end these practices. How will business and government respond? Could we finally be reaching the tipping point?

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