Forced Labour: What is it? What is the World Community Doing About It?

This blog, is the first of our mini series concerning Forced Labour and the Silica supply chain. Today we will be looking at “What is forced labour?”, and, “What is the world community doing about it?”.
Forced Labour: What is it? and What is the World Community Doing About It?
“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity.” —Mother Teresa

On July 13, 2021, the U.S. Departments of: State; Treasury; Commerce; Homeland Security; and Labor, together with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, issued a Supply Chain Business Advisory for products originating in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, China. 

The business advisory, "Risks and Considerations for Businesses and Individuals with Exposure to Entities Engaged in Forced Labor and other Human Rights Abuses linked to Xinjiang, China, specifically indicates that forced labor has been, and continues to be, used in the Xinjiang silicon and polysilicon supply chain.

This blog looks at, “What is forced labour?”, and, “What is the world community doing about it?”.

What is Forced Labour?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed under the League of Nations in 1919. It is the first and the oldest specialised agency of the United Nations. It was established to set international labour standards, and thus to advance social and economic justice. There are 187 member states in the ILO.

The ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), defines forced or compulsory labour as:  

"all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily."

This Convention was ratified by 179 members, and was not ratified by 8, notably including China and the United States of America.

In 1957, the ILO adopted the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention No. 105. This Convention addressed the use of forced labour imposed by state authorities. It specifically prohibits the use of forced labour:

  1. as punishment for the expression of political views.
  2. for the purposes of economic development.
  3. as a means of labour discipline.
  4. as a punishment for participation in strikes.
  5. as a means of racial, religious or other discrimination.

This convention was ratified by 176 members (two of which, Malaysia and Singapore, subsequently denounced it) and it was not ratified by 11 members, including China, Japan, Laos, and Myanmar.   

The ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 reaffirms this definition, and adds obligations: 

“to suppress forced or compulsory labour, each Member shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate its use, to provide to victims protection and access to appropriate and effective remedies, such as compensation, and to sanction the perpetrators of forced or compulsory labour”

This Convention was ratified by 56 members and not ratified by 131, again including China and the United States of America.

The ILO Protocol indicates that forced labour consists of three elements:

men working

In essence, persons are in a forced labor situation if they enter work or service against their free choice, and cannot leave it without penalty or the threat of penalty. Involuntariness does not have to result from physical punishment or constraint. Involuntariness can take the form of retaliation, such as the loss of rights or privileges or non-payment of wages owed. A worker can be considered to be in forced labor if their consent was obtained through the use of force, abduction, fraud, deception, or the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability.

The ILO Convention also describes five situations, which are considered exceptions to the “forced labour” definition under certain conditions.

  1. Compulsory military service.
  2. Normal civic obligations.
  3. Prison labour (under certain conditions).
  4. Work in emergency situations (such as war, calamity or threatened calamity e.g. fire, flood, famine, earthquake).
  5. Minor communal services (within the community).

Why is forced labour still so prevalent?

So if there has been international consensus that forced labour is unacceptable, why then are forced labour, trafficking in persons, and other forms of ‘modern-day slavery’ still wide spread?

The answer is multifold.

The US Department of Labor - Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) maintains a list of goods and their source countries that it has reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced or trafficked labor in violation of international standards. As of June 23, 2021, 

Numbers can sometimes be numbing. It is estimated that there are 30-40 million adults in forced labour. 30-40 million adults is roughly the entire population of a country, like Malaysia; or a region, like Scandinavia; or a State, like Texas.

30-40 million adults are thrust, trafficked or trapped in forced labour.

What is the world community doing to stop forced labour?

There has been considerable political activity in the past year addressing the problem of forced labour.  

This recent political activity is beginning to address forced labour through the application of trade laws and import bans. It will take more.

Man working in a mine, he is dirty.


Transparency is the Key to Bringing Secrecy to Light

Forced labour is often hidden from immediate view. This is where companies and individuals can help the trapped. The tool is transparency.  

There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”  ― Joseph Pulitzer

Transparency through Satellite Tracking:  

One example of innovative transparency comes from the Environmental Market Solutions Lab (emLab) at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) . They recently published the preliminary results of a project aimed at identifying fishing vessels that are highly likely to be engaging in forced labor. Vessels fishing illegally often ‘spoof’ (misrepresent) their GPS location or Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), thus making tracking more difficult.  


The project used satellite tracking data to follow vessels known to have previously used forced labour. They monitored a list of indicators of vessel behaviors, such as spending more time on the high seas, traveling farther from ports than other vessels, and fishing more hours per day than other boats. They then used machine learning techniques to analyze the data and create a data model that could be used to identify other vessels exhibiting similar behaviours. The UCSB team is now working with Global Fishing Watch and providing data to governments, enforcement agencies and labor groups. These groups can use the results to more effectively target vessel inspections.

Transparency through Blockchain Provenance:  

A second innovative tool is the use of blockchain technology to create an immutable record of material shipments as they pass hands along the length of a supply chain. These records, or ‘Product Passports’ contain the provenance data essential to downstream customers needing to perform due diligence. As data is added by each participant along the supply chain, downstream customers become aware of potential supplier issues along the chain and can act to correct them.  This provenance is especially valuable to all parties involved in the supply of material that may have originated in or passed through countries where forced labour is known to occur.

The next blog will look more specifically at the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. What makes this region of special concern, and how does that affect global supply chains?

About the author

Lee's career has extended from private medical practice to associate medical director for Michelin, and from President of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Association of Nova Scotia, to chair of the Cobalt REACH Consortium technical committee. He is passionate about product stewardship.

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Forced Labour: What is it? and What is the World Community Doing About It?

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