An estimated 20.9 million are victims of forced labor, a type of enslavement that captures labor and sexual exploitation. Forced labor is most like historic American slavery: coerced, often physically and without pay. All other categories of slavery are a subset of forced labor and can include domestic servitude, child labor, bonded labor and forced sex. State authorities, businesses and individuals force coercive labor practices upon people in order to profit or gain from their work.
Not included in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) definition – or their estimate of 20.9 million people trapped in forced labor – are cases of trafficking for organ removal, forced or child marriages and forced adoptions.
Forced labor is the type of enslavement used across the world to produce many products in our global supply chains. The fishing, textile, construction, mineral and agriculture industries are particularly laced with forced laborers. The private economy – businesses and individuals seeking to create a profit – exploits 90% of the world’s forced laborers, meaning that the desire to produce a profit is the largest motivating force behind the institution of slavery.
Many state and rebel governments also practice forced labor, with at least 2.2 million people worldwide in state-imposed forms of forced labor. When public governments exploit individuals’ bodies for their own gain, it’s a form of enslavement. It occurs in state prisons, in convict leasing programs and in work imposed by military or rebel armed forces. Child soldiers fall into this category of enslavement.
According to the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention, forced or compulsory labor is all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. Forced labor can include forced sexual services.
United States’ Definition
Forced labor in the United States can include sex trafficking and/or labor trafficking since both utilize forced or compulsory labor under threat, fraud or coercion. Most often though, U.S. activists reference forced labor when speaking about labor trafficking since sex trafficking is a separately defined crime.
According to the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery (22 USC § 7102).
Forced Labor in the United States
In the U.S., more foreign victims are found in labor trafficking than sex trafficking. Some of these labor trafficking victims entered the country under work or student-based visa programs. Victims can be targeted once they arrived in the U.S., or foreign recruiters may bring these forced laborers to the U.S. using fraudulent or coercive means. Immigrants can be vulnerable to U.S.-based traffickers because of unfamiliarity with the English language, American customs or job processes.
Primary countries of origin for foreign victims certified by the U.S. government are Thailand, Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, India, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
Exploitative Working Conditions
Forced labor is different from sub-standard or exploitative working conditions found in some factories and employment opportunities worldwide. Victims of unfair or low wages – like those in sweatshops – are not enslaved because they do not work under the threat of a penalty or without volunteering their employment. Their employment is a different form of exploitation, though related to the similar desire to generate a profit.