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Developed countries are making $47 billion a year from forced labor

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Migrant workers demand better rights in the UK, in 2011.
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

recent United Nations report puts the amount of profits made from forced labor at $150 billion. It’s easy to assume that the money is made almost exclusively in countries with weak institutions and corrupt law enforcement. But the report estimates that developed countries are home to $47 billion worth of such labor exploitation.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that even today “20.9 million people are in forced labor globally, trafficked for labor and sexual exploitation, or held in slavery-like conditions.”

The ILO’s definition of forced labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” By conducting surveys of workers across the world who have suffered such horrors, and estimating wages based on their line of work, the ILO came up with a measure of the money gained from their being exploited. Asia is marked as home to the biggest profiteers, but developed countries aren’t far behind.

A report released last year by the UK-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation studied forced-labor markets in nine European countries—France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Sweden—and found evidence of such exploitation in every single one.

The most obvious examples of advanced-economy exploitation involve domestic workers. In 2012, a couple from Wisconsin was deported to the Philippines after they were discovered to have been keeping a Filipina woman locked in their home for 19 years. But most victims aren’t domestic workers. In the European Union and US in particular, overworking and underpaying migrant workers doing jobs in agriculture or construction is much more common.

Until forced labor starts to bring in much less than $47-billion within their borders, developed countries should worry about being accused of holding a double standard when they reprimand others.

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