- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Roger Plant, chief of the International Labor Organization’s program to combat forced labor, in Geneva about the ILO report released last week titled “A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor.” Mr. Plant, 57, is a British subject.

Question: The ILO report says forced labor is a worldwide problem. Can you elaborate?

Answer: Yes, we have given a figure of 12.3 million forced laborers around the world, of which about 9.5 million are in Asia. But this is an absolutely global problem: There are over 350,000 victims of forced labor in the industrialized countries.

There is a general perception that forced labor is exacted only by a few repressive states around the world. We have shown that four-fifths of all forced labor is imposed by private actors, usually in the underground and shadow economies, but not only there.

The important thing is to note that it is no longer the situation of the mid-20th century. It now overlaps with modern slavery, because it is essentially the private underground economy.

Q: The report says the problem is quite serious in India, Pakistan and Nepal, and that, in particular, ethnic minorities and indigenous people are targeted.

A: Yes, we have to deal with these two separately.

It’s long been believed that the most serious incidents of forced labor [are] in the bonded-labor systems of South Asia. This is because of the high population of a country like India, for example. But also, these are very long-standing, structurally imbedded systems of coercion.

So, yes, we do want to put the spotlight on the bonded-labor systems of South Asia, but also [on] what’s being done about them, because there are some signs of action against them.

Regarding indigenous peoples, we have carried out a number of studies on countries, including Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, complementing our work in Brazil in Latin America, and these indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor when they’re away from their home communities in remote parts of the Amazon or other tropical areas where there is no state presence, no law enforcement and no real protection.

Q: What are the main forms of forced labor in India, Pakistan and Nepal?

A: There’s no doubt that indebtedness or induced indebtedness is the prevalent form of forced labor. It’s something which is a characteristic, I would say, of all forms of forced labor today.

So we’re finding that even the more traditional forms of bonded labor are changing and transmuting. We’re finding that they are affecting more and more people that are on the move, away from their home communities, from protection by their community networks.

Of course, debt is the principal factor behind modern forced labor, which is affecting irregular migrants across the world. Sometimes those who want to emigrate are paying huge sums of money, and the sums keep going up. The sums are getting as high as $50,000 for a family that wants to migrate.

So they are locked into a cycle of debt. Of course, in South Asia we’re talking about much smaller family incomes. So a relatively small debt can eventually lock a person or a family into a cycle of bondage. And the debts can accumulate.

A lot of forced labor is linked to sharecropping systems and agricultural tenancy. But we’re also finding that it is affecting families in mining, in brick making, in a number of informal sector activities.

Again, it’s when people are moving away from their home communities that they’re particularly likely to fall into debt and have no protection.

Q: Have the international campaigns against the sweatshop industries — garments, carpet-making, etcetera, helped to reduce the problem?

A: I would say yes — [but] we don’t know enough about this. We’re just beginning to do systematic research on this kind of issue now. It’s sporadic information that comes to light in the industrialized countries. Some grotesque cases come to light.

When we’re dealing with the Vietnams, the Cambodias, the Chinas, we don’t really know a great deal about the [work] conditions … in these sectors.

Of course, most companies — we hope — are concerned to keep forced labor out of their supply chain, and we know there has been effective progress by major multinationals.

Q: There was talk in the U.S. trade community about linking core labor standards to trade sanctions at some point. This was very unpopular, as developing countries saw it as a form of protectionism. President Clinton made the link during the failed Seattle World Trade Organization summit in December 1999.

Down the road, do you think some form of sanctions would be necessary to wipe out this problem or that enforcement might be a problem?

A: As we explained in [the ILO] report on globalization, sanctions should only be imposed in extreme cases where there is the systematic and pervasive practice of forced labor in a country.

We’re obviously concerned that countries should look into their forced-labor situation, but if they’re going to be threatened with sanctions as soon as they unearth a forced-labor situation, then nobody is going to look into it and everybody is going to drive it underground.

When you find that a government is facing up to the problems, when it is documenting cases of forced labor in different industries and, hopefully, taking some strong measures against it, [then] sanctions are not going to be a good idea and the specter of protectionism will always hang over any campaign of that nature. …

Q: The report indicates that in Pakistan forced labor seems to be more of a problem in the non-Muslim community. Why is that?

A: These are particular characteristics that we are finding in Sindh, for example, where some minorities have migrated recently from India — these are groups less likely to be accepted [by the majority population].

But I wouldn’t put as much emphasis on that issue as … across the border in India. We’ve certainly noted from research by the Asian Development Bank and others that there does seem to be a preponderance of these non-Muslim communities, but we’re finding that, generally, it would be the religious minorities [and] outcasts who are likely to be subjected to coercive relationships and bonded labor.

Q: The report mentioned that the government of Pakistan has measures under way. What other steps are being taken by governments?

A: We place emphasis on two kinds of measures.

First, you absolutely need to have clear laws. Much legislation against forced labor is far too general.

And when we met with agents from Interpol, with prosecutors and others, they say, “We simply can’t come to grips with these new forms of forced labor, and resources aren’t made available to investigate them anyway.”

So you’ve got to have this legislative framework. There are a few countries in the world … and our report highlights Brazil, which is strengthening both its law and its law enforcement.

We do think that the growing international concern over human trafficking is prompting some states to strengthen their legal framework against trafficking. For example, the United States, in its [Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000], set these problems more firmly in law and also created a presidential task force to mobilize various agencies against trafficking.

We feel this is the case in Brazil, and it’s also been the case in Pakistan, where there’s been a national policy and action against bonded labor since 2001. They moved forward very slowly, but we’ve been finding that over the last few months … we’re getting the first serious signs of action in Pakistan.

India is an interesting case. India has the longest-standing legislation against bonded labor, but I think it slipped to some extent off the radar screen over the last 10 or 15 years, even though the central government is helping some state governments carry out surveys. But we’re hoping to see more integrated action in India as well against bonded labor.

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