Forced Labor

Slavery is now illegal in every nation on earth. Yet modern forms of it can be found in every corner of the globe.

Forced labor traps nearly 21 million in bondage annually, according to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates.  The actual number of victims may be much higher. These crimes are notoriously difficult to identify and document. About one quarter of the victims (5.5 million) are under the age of 18.

ILRF is attempting to end forced labor by attacking its root causes. We work with governments, companies and worker organizations to document cases, and to ensure that workers are protected and empowered to demand dignified, just working conditions.


Slavery continues to be a lucrative business.

At the end of the 18th century, three quarters of the world’s population was bound in legally-recognized systems of slavery and serfdom. Slavery had been an institution throughout human history, existing before either money or written law. Campaigns for the abolition of slavery throughout the 17th and 18th centuries brought about unprecedented change in global economic and government structures, paving the way for freedom from slavery to be enshrined as a fundamental human right. Yet today, at least 21 million people are still victims of forced labor -- defined as “any work or service extracted from a person against his or her free will, and under the menace of penalty.” Laws that forbid slavery have pushed the practice underground, making these victims difficult to identify and assist.

The United Nations includes abolishment of slavery, free choice of employment, and just remuneration for labor in the Universal Declaration of human rights. The International Labor Organization (ILO) includes the elimination of all forms of forced labor as one of four fundamental principles and rights at work, and two ILO Conventions (No. 29 and 105) prohibit forced labor. Some state actors continue to exploit forced labor despite international law, but more than 90 percent of contemporary forced labor exists in the private sector.

The majority of this work, 75 percent, takes place in industries such as agriculture, domestic work, construction, fishing and manufacturing. The remaining quarter are forced into the sex trade. Victims are often subject to violence and actual physical restraint by the perpetrators of this crime, but also to more subtle means of control including deception, threats against victims or their families, excessive debt and wage theft.

The consequences are enormous. The ILO estimates the total loss of compensation to victims of forced labor at $21 billion annually, a lucrative financial incentive for those who perpetrate this crime. Victims tend to be from vulnerable poor and migrant populations, and this financial loss only cements a generational cycle of poverty that often passes from parents to children. In addition, victims of forced labor are often left with emotional and physical scars that make reintegration into society difficult.


ILRF works to end forced labor by tackling its root causes.

Forced labor has received increased attention in the last decade, largely due to the 2003 U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, a crime often linked to forced labor. More governments are passing laws against and devoting enforcement resources to ending forced labor. However, legal remedies are not enough. Most of the forced labor problem lies in supply chains overseen by private companies. Corporations must take a stand that forced labor will not be tolerated and establish mechanisms to verify that forced labor does not taint the goods we buy.

ILRF is attempting to end forced labor by tackling its root causes. We work with governments, companies and worker organizations to document cases of forced labor, and ensure that workers are protected and empowered to demand dignified, just working conditions. The following are some examples of the solutions we are working toward:

  • Corporate accountability: Companies have the power to end forced labor in their supply chains, and have an obligation to do so. ILRF conducts research to identify goods produced with forced labor in supply chains, develops consumer awareness campaigns, and works with companies to press for meaningful, legally-binding mechanisms to eliminate forced labor from each stage of production.
  • Government responsibility: Governments play a vital role in passing laws that make workers less vulnerable to forced labor and prosecuting perpetrators of the crime. ILRF presses governments to strengthen immigration and labor policies, enforcement mechanisms and victim protection and recovery services.
  • Transparency in working conditions: Victims of forced labor are often deceived about the terms of their employment, and don’t know who they can trust to report abuses. ILRF advocates for clear working conditions, documented in the workers’ native language and negotiated with worker representatives. In addition, we work with unions and other groups to develop safe, confidential complaint processes for workers.
  • Trade solutions: ILRF works to make goods produced with forced labor less profitable by blocking entrance into lucrative U.S. markets using two important tools: 1) the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which prohibits the U.S. government from procuring goods produced with forced labor and 2) the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits goods made, “wholly or in part” by forced labor to be imported into the United States.

ILRF campaigns to end forced labor:


Uzbekistan is one of the top-ten exporters of cotton in the world, but it is all harvested in one of the world’s most extensive systems of state-sponsored forced labor. Each year, millions of Uzbek citizens, including schoolchildren, are mobilized to harvest cotton for the state-run industry.

Palm Oil

Sales of palm oil, which appears in many consumer goods from snacks to soap, are booming. Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for 80% of global palm oil experts, are profiting from the expanding market, but at the cost of forced labor, child labor and environmental destruction on palm oil plantations.

Shrimp & Fish

Thailand is a world leader in shrimp exports but most of the workers in the industry are vulnerable migrant workers, mostly from neighboring Burma. Child labor has been documented at every step of the process: on shrimp boats and farms, in “peeling sheds” that prepare the raw shrimp and the processing plants that send them to market.