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May 21, 2014

Alarming Report Shows Three-fold Increase in the Profitability of Forced Labor

By Jill Savitt

A report released this week from the International Labor Organization (ILO) provides new estimates of the profitability of human slavery, putting the total business of forced labor, including coerced commercial sex, at roughly $150 billion. This figure is three times higher than the ILO's last accounting from a decade ago. The new figures are based on data gathered in 2012.

The report, called "Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour," estimates not only profits but also the number of victims: 21 million. This number includes people trapped in forced labor, trafficked, held in debt bondage or working under slave-like conditions. Half of all victims are women and girls primarily involved in sexual exploitation and domestic work as well as other labor. The rest are men and boys involved in construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities, a range of agricultural work, and in sexual exploitation.

The report's findings serve to dispel a common misperception in the trafficking field -- that victims are primarily in the sex trade. In fact, although most of the profits of trafficking come from sex trafficking, only a small portion of victims are sex slaves .

The report outlines profits of forced labor by sector:

  • $99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation
  • $34 billion in construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities
  • $9 billion in agriculture, including forestry and fishing

In addition, the ILO estimates that private households saved roughly $8 billion in 2012 by not paying or underpaying domestic workers.

While exploiters earn massive profits from forced labor, the report also outlines the range of losses -- to victims and to economies.  

"People in forced labour are often caught in a vicious cycle that condemns them to endless poverty," the report said. "...At the same time, law-abiding businesses and employers are disadvantaged by forced labour as it creates an environment of unfair competition and risks tarnishing the reputation of entire industries and sectors. And governments and societies are also harmed because the profits generated by forced labour bypass national tax collection systems, and the costs involved in dealing with forced labour cases are significant."