The International Labour Organisation has updated their estimate of the number of people in forced labour after seven years. They now give a ‘conservative estimate’ of nearly 21 million, replacing their 2005 ‘estimated minimum’ of 12.3 million. So the figures ‘can’t be compared.’ Most importantly, in spite of the higher figures, we don’t know whether the number of people in forced labour has gone up or not.

At first glance …

  1. Some of the stats are now presented much more clearly: for example, the estimate clearly indicates that 55% of those in forced labour are female (a majority, but certainly not an overwhelming one – so perhaps we should stop treating this as an issue affecting women in particular, and instead consider how gender shapes labour rights and labour outcomes).
  2. On the other hand,  some of the regions are defined differently. It seems that while the estimates for a) Latin America and the Caribbean and b) Asia and Pacific have gone up slightly, all the other regions have gone up dramatically. I am not sure what to make of this yet. But the dramatic increases include the region ‘Developed Economies and European Union.’ This is still thought to have the lowest incidence but upping the estimate significantly probably seems like a good thing.
  3. The distinction between ‘forced sexual exploitation’ and ‘forced labour exploitation in economic activities’ is still deeply problematic. It implies that either sex work is not labour, or that the sex industry is not economic. Compared to the 2005 estimate, the percentage thought to be in state-imposed forced labour is way down (now 10%), the percentage in ‘forced labour exploitation’ in the private economy is up slightly (now 68%) and the percentage in ‘forced sexual exploitation’ is up significantly (now 22%).
  4. According to the new estimates, ‘9.1 million victims (44 %) who have moved either internally or internationally. The majority, 11.8 million (56 %), are subjected to forced labour in their place of origin or residence.’ I think this is new (although admittedly I might have forgotten something from the 2005 report) and quite interesting. Forms of forced labour depend a lot on their context. And in Europe or the US we might think its all about (im)migration – apparently not everywhere!
  5. Kevin Bales is probably feeling vindicated right now, given his 1999 estimate of 27 million people. (NB: I admire him for bringing attention to this issue, but also try to critique some troublesome aspects of his analysis.)
  6. Which leads to the next point. Has anything changed about the ‘ghettoisation‘ of this issue? What does this estimate of forced labour say about work, labour and employment in the contemporary (capitalist) economy? Comments welcome.

(And, yes, this new estimate prompted me to return to the blog after giving up about a month ago…)

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