loader image

Picture: muntazar mansory en Pixabay

ILO: Rise in Forced Labor Across the Globe

26 March, 2024 | Ricardo Changala

According to a report released by the International Labor Organization in March 2024 regarding global forced labor statistics, it is asserted that the staggering annual profits generated by forced labor worldwide (US$236 billion) reflect the wages or income effectively pilfered from workers’ pockets by perpetrators of forced labor through coercive practices.

Additionally, it is contended that the profits derived from forced labor may fuel further exploitation, bolster criminal networks, encourage corruption, and undermine the rule of law.[1]

Several years ago, in his renowned work “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Thomas Piketty posited:

“In broad terms, the central reality is that the return on capital frequently intertwines elements of genuine entrepreneurial effort (an utterly indispensable force for economic advancement), sheer luck (acquiring a promising asset at an opportune moment for a favorable price), and outright theft.”[2]

Expounding upon various variables and core concepts featured in Piketty’s work, the 2018 Global Inequality Report, spearheaded by a diverse team of researchers, including Piketty himself, establishes that since 1980, there have been substantial shifts in wealth ownership across nearly all countries, both affluent and emerging, transitioning from public to private domains.

Consequently, while national wealth (comprising public and private assets) has experienced significant growth, public wealth has plummeted into negative territory or approached zero in wealthy nations (where debts surpass assets).

The report overwhelmingly demonstrates that inequality has surged in virtually every corner of the world, albeit at varying rates, as the amalgamation of widespread privatization and escalating income disparities has exacerbated wealth concentration.[3]

This trajectory contradicts the aspirations, regulations, and institutional frameworks established within multilateral entities that emerged or expanded following the Second World War.

Since the adoption of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a progression towards the recognition and monitoring of the rights of individuals and groups, with some key milestones such as the main Treaties in the field, such as the Rights Covenants of 1966, the Convention against Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention against Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), of Migrant Workers (1990), among others, in addition to regional instruments and mechanisms on human rights.

In turn, many countries have been adjusting, or in several cases, expanding their internal norms recognizing and developing international standards, as has happened in the Latin American region. In 2015, the UN General Assembly approved the Development Agenda containing the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end poverty by 2030 and promote shared economic prosperity, social development, and environmental protection for all countries. The third paragraph of the Development Agenda states:

“We are determined to end poverty and hunger in all forms and dimensions by 2030, to combat inequalities within and among countries, to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies, to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and to ensure lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We are also determined to create the conditions for sustainable, inclusive, and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different national levels of development and capacity.”[4]

While the legal and institutional architecture declared its goals of equalization, prosperity, protection of human rights and the environment, ultimately seeking social justice, the economic and social reality has moved in the opposite direction.

Recently, this has also taken shape at the narrative level, questioning the conceptual foundations of the so-called Welfare State, even promoted by States that in previous decades were substantial bases of that construction, actions deeply questioning that idea. We have moved from justifying actual inequalities as an error to correct or as a stage to overcome, to conceive it as part of reality whose elimination is not at the center of decision-makers’ concerns.

This is the case with labor rights, both individual and collective, which have always had opponents, generally from the business sector, arguing that they are hindrances or anchors to economic development.

For example, despite the progress made, including labor union efforts and international standards, the reality is that in the world, not only are there still many people working without reasonable limits on their hours, but also slave labor persists in the form of forced labor or modern forms of slavery. Improving working conditions, including working hours, has been at the forefront of social demands and thus, in the emergence of labor rights.

It has been documented that one of the first groups to achieve a reduction in working hours were construction workers in Australia, in 1856. The International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 1, adopted at the first International Labour Conference in 1919, established the maximum weekly and daily limits for the industrial sector at 48 and 8 hours respectively.

At that time, only four countries had established these limits in their national legislation: Cuba (1909), Panama (1914), Uruguay (1915), and Ecuador (1916). The legal adoption of the daily and weekly working hours has faced numerous complexities and encountered much resistance. In fact, more than 100 years after the adoption of the convention, only 52 countries have ratified it. In Central America, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama have yet to do so.

The International Labor Organization’s Recommendation No. 116 of 1962 suggests that “Each Member should formulate and pursue a national policy that allows for the promotion… of the adoption of the principle of the progressive reduction of the normal duration of work”, including a series of basic points to consider, such as national characteristics, technological development, priority for work involving significant physical or mental effort, among others.

Unlike previous decades, technology and work organization have never allowed labor productivity to increase so much, creating conditions for reducing working hours without affecting income or business benefits. In several countries around the world, among other reasons due to the possibilities offered by new technologies, some limitations on working hours are being adopted, as is the case in certain Latin American nations.

In Colombia, Law 2101 of 2023 proposes a gradual reduction of the weekly working hours with the aim of establishing a 42-hour workweek by 2026, starting from 44 hours in 2025.

The Chilean Congress approved in April 2023 a gradual reduction of the weekly working hours from 45 to 40. After one year of its implementation, the weekly hours will be reduced to 44; after three years, the limit will be 42 hours, and after five years, it will reach 40 hours. The law provides for the possibility of working four days and resting three (unlike the current legislation, which requires a minimum of five working days).

In the Dominican Republic (DR), in February 2024, the Voluntary Reduced Workweek Pilot Plan was introduced, aiming to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours. As announced by government authorities, the DR became the first country in Latin America to advance with the reduction of the workweek and to experiment with a 4-day workweek for its workers.[5]

However, at the same time, in most countries around the world, extensive work hours persist, often exceeding national and international regulatory limits. Additionally, technological advancements do not seem to contribute much to reducing the workweek, despite what might be expected.

The trend towards digital connectivity and telecommuting is leading to extended work hours or, at the very least, the lack of disconnection of workers from their companies or places of activity, significantly affecting both physical and mental rest time.

Most labor reforms promoted and implemented in recent years have predominantly carried a neoliberal, deregulatory, or flexibilizing agenda.

These reforms have undermined the protections outlined by labor laws and have introduced new work arrangements or resurrected old ones, impacting not just rest but the overall well-being of workers.

Examples include telecommuting, digital technologies, and similar tools.

Clearly, it is not technology itself that determines its use to improve people’s lives, such as reducing working hours. It is about promoting and achieving social, political, and cultural agreements that make it possible.

Moreover, in this world that consolidates inequality, efforts, albeit still isolated, towards reducing the workweek coexist with the persistence of forced labor with characteristics similar to what occurred decades or centuries ago.

The recent report from the International Labor Organization mentioned earlier indicates that between 2016 and 2021, the number of people in forced labor increased by 2.7 million, resulting in an increase in the prevalence of forced labor from 3.4 to 3.5 per thousand people. No region of the world is exempt from forced labor.

Asia and the Pacific host more than half of the global total (15.1 million), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.1 million), Africa (3.8 million), the Americas (3.6 million), and the Arab States (0.9 million). When measured in terms of prevalence, forced labor is highest in the Arab States (5.3 per thousand people), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.4 per thousand), the Americas and Asia and the Pacific (both with 3.5 per thousand), and Africa (2.9 per thousand).

Forced labor affects virtually every sector of the private economy, with the four main sectors—industry, services, agriculture, and domestic work—representing the majority (89 percent) of total forced labor. The number of current forced labor victims has increased by 27% compared to a decade ago.

The report compares its findings with the previous one, indicating a $64 billion increase in illegal profits from forced labor since then.

A closer analysis of the numbers suggests that this increase in illegal profits was driven by both a higher number of people in forced labor and more illegal profits generated per victim. The annual profit per victim was estimated at $8,269 in 2014 (adjusted for inflation) and $9,995 in 2024, representing a 21% increase.

Obviously, forced labor exists outside of current international and national legislation, reinforcing the initial assertion of this article characterizing the growth of capital gains. As it operates in secrecy, it is reasonable to assume that the recorded numbers conceal a much more widespread reality that remains undisclosed.

Perhaps most significantly, it’s not a relic of the past on the verge of disappearing, but its steady increase demonstrates that the coexistence of forced labor, extreme abuse, and poor working conditions alongside advancements in reducing working hours and increasing productivity through cutting-edge technologies are two sides of a complex and unequal reality. Inequality and the exclusion of vast segments of the world’s population are hallmarks of the current era.

Acknowledging this reality can lead to acting towards profound changes, “…in the conviction that social justice is essential to ensure universal and lasting peace.”


[1] ILO, Profits and poverty: The economics  of forced labour, 2024

[2]Piketty, Thomas, Le capitals au siècle XXI, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2013

[3] World Inequality, The Global Inequality Report 2018, wid.world

[4] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on September 25, 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, A/RES/70/1, October 21, 2015.

[5] To read more information see  https://www.lacommunis.org/dominican-republic-launches-initiative-to-implement-36-hour-workweek/