An Introduction to Forced Labor

by Michelle Palmer

When I tell people I studied modern slavery studies, it usually goes something like this: They give me that look — the look that says, “Modern what?”– and I say, “You know, like human trafficking,” and they say, “Oh, like sex trafficking?” and then I say, “Yes, and other types of slavery, like forced labor.” And then there’s kind of a blank stare after that.b0ef92632a63e0b664efab34b2eba94c

Even before I got my degree, I noticed that certain forms of slavery get more attention than others. I’ve particularly noticed that sex trafficking/sexual exploitation gets far more exposure than labor trafficking/forced labor, while in fact, it is generally thought that more people are trapped in forced labor than in forms of sexual exploitation. Free the Slaves estimates that 78% of slaves are involved in forced labor compared to 22% in sex trafficking. We could debate the causes and effects of this attention disparity, but we’ll save that for another Tuesday. Also, it must be said that sexual exploitation and forced labor are not mutually exclusive and there is overlap amongst all the various forms of modern slavery. For now, I just want to focus on doing my part to close the information gap and provide an introduction to forced labor.

The What, Where & How? of Forced Labor

“Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” ILO

Like sexual forms of slavery, labor trafficking can begin voluntarily. Not everyone who is trafficked is stolen away like the daughter in Taken. Sometimes, people agree to take jobs and find themselves in a situation from which they cannot escape.

lk-brickThis happens in a variety of ways, and one of the most vulnerable groups of people to trafficking is migrants. It goes something like this:  There’s the promise of a good job, with high wages, in a foreign country. An individual may apply for this job and may even pay the recruiter or employer for taking care of visa requirements. Upon arrival, the employer takes the visa and the passport and says, “If you leave, the police will arrest you for being here illegally.”

Or maybe like this: There is a health crisis in the family. There’s no money for healthcare. The family borrows money from a lender and puts themselves up as collateral. The idea is that they will pay off the debt through their labor, but the debt will never be paid due to exorbitant interest rates.

Where does it happen? Everywhere. Yes, even in the United States. The U.S. based NGO, KnowTheChain, estimates that in the U.S., 5% of farm workers are victims of forced labor. There are also Filipino domestic workers enslaved in the Middle East, Cambodian fisherman exploited in Thailand, Brazilians trapped deep in the Amazon making charcoal. One of the challenges of fighting forced labor is that in comes in so many forms. Here are few stories of how it happens and what it looks like:

ap060330027560_immokalee2Florida –  “In the most extreme conditions, farmworkers have been held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay, facing conditions that meet the stringent legal standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. Federal Civil Rights officials have successfully prosecuted seven slavery operations involving over 1,000 workers in Florida’s fields since 1997, prompting one federal prosecutor to call Florida ‘ground zero for modernday [sic] slavery.’ In 2010, federal prosecutors indicted two more forced labor rings operating in Florida. Modern-day slavery operations do not take place in a vacuum. Rather, they occur at the far end of a spectrum of labor abuses faced by farmworkers, including sub-poverty annual earnings, the denial of common workplace protections, and the prevalence of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and wage theft. As U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has explained, ‘The norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery.’” – Coalition of Immokalee Workers

80ee93dc-ae36-4d1f-a079-0093b9981e7bScotlandAbul Azad left Bangladesh for a chef’s job in London – so how did he end up enslaved in a remote Scottish hotel? “‘[The employer] had a contract and a visa, everything was official,’ Azad says. ‘I didn’t know it could be abused. I showed it to my father and said, “Give me a chance, I want to go. Here, you can see the contract. It is good pay, good working conditions, a proper salary.” Is it my fault for believing this? All the time he [Arefin] gave me great hope. He said, ‘What’s your life like in Bangladesh? What is there for you? Think about your son.’ I fell into his big hope trap. And I couldn’t get out again.’” Read the whole story here.

InCarpet factorydia – “Their story is tragically common. The boys are from impoverished communities in the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal. Relatives, working secretly as trafficking recruiters, promised the boys’ parents that their children would have better lives if they travelled to work at a carpet factory in the city of Bhadohi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Each parent received an advance payment of $70. Initially, for a month, the boys were paid and their families received $40. But then, the factory owner claimed the boys weren’t productive enough to be paid at all. When the boys complained, they were beaten. They were fed, kept alive to work day by day, but they were not allowed to leave.” – Free the Slaves

congo-miningCongo – “The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo) is rich in resources that make modern life possible—minerals used by industrialized nations in manufacturing, jewelry, and many other industries. Gold and the ‘Three Ts’ (tin, tungsten, tantalum) are used in everything from cars to medical devices, household goods to high-tech electronics. Mineral resources have the potential to help the DRC’s economy expand and diversify. But instead, much of the profit benefits groups engaged in armed conflict. Ore mined by slaves is smuggled into global supply chains for metals, tainting products we use every day.” – Free the Slaves

What  YOU can do about it:

  1. Buy responsibly! Research which companies are committed to slave-free supply chains and shop accordingly. Learn more about consumer responsibility at
  2. Support the organizations that are working to end it!


Signing up for AmazonSmile and Shop & Support are great ways to support without even thinking about it!!

For more information:

3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Forced Labor

  1. […] What happened to Haresh is not wholly uncommon in South Asia. Kara estimates “18.5 to 22.5 million debt bondage slaves in the world today, almost 90% of whom are in South Asia.” The ILO gives a more conservative estimate: 11.7 million slaves in the region, most of whom are bonded laborers. This form of debt bondage is illegal, but extreme poverty leads people to fall prey to these dubious lenders in times of desperation. Many of my examples are from developing regions, but this isn’t something that only happens “over there.” There are people in extreme poverty in the West, and their desperation could lead to situations of enslavement and various forms of forced labor. […]


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