Enforcement of labour standards

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that there are currently almost 21 million people exploited in forced or compulsory labour worldwide. Around the world the conditions for labour exploitation are created by poor regulation and enforcement of labour standards across the labour market.

Labour inspection has a crucial role to play in eliminating trafficking for labour exploitation; by ensuring that employment standards are upheld and infringements are properly penalised, the demand for cheap and exploitative labour is diminished. In order to reverse the economic balance of forced labour, where profits far outweigh penalties, inspection must go hand-in-hand with serious consequences for contraventions of the law: successful prosecutions can and should be used not only to punish offenders but also to provide a deterrent to prevent exploitation from the outset.


There are 4 key labour inspectorates responsible for examining and enforcing compliance with labour laws in the UK:

  • The Health and Safety Executive
  • The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate
  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs national minimum wage inspectorates; and
  • The Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA)

Significant cuts to the resources and scope of these bodies in recent years has considerably reduced capacity for pro-active inspection and enforcement, leaving laws prohibiting exploitative recruitment and employment practices severely undermined.

Throughout the debate on the UK Modern Slavery Act FLEX called for enforcement of labour standards as the first line of defence against exploitation, specifically through the expansion of the GLA’s remit to high-risk sectors including construction, care, cleaning and hospitality.


In June 2014, the ILO International Labour Conference voted overwhelmingly to adopt a Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which sets out measures for prevention, protection and remedy, to eliminate forced labour worldwide. The Protocol and supplementary Recommendation, aims to “address gaps in implementation of the [Forced Labour] Convention”, to provide specific guidance for member states on how to tackle forced labour and also to promote increased co-operation on a global level.

States who ratify the Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention commit to addressing “root causes and factors that heighten the risks of forced labour” by: educating employers and workers (in particular those most vulnerable to exploitation), extending enforcement of laws to all sectors, protecting workers from fraudulent and abusive recruitment processes, and strengthening labour inspection.

The Protocol is accompanied by a range of practical recommendations designed to aid its implementation. These include proposals to strengthen the promotion, inspection and enforcement of labour standards through: regulation and licensing of labour recruiters and agencies; elimination of recruitment fees; ensuring labour inspectorates have the mandate, resources and training to enforce the law; and provision for penalties and penal sanctions. 


This Recommendation (R203) sets out the measures States should take to suppress forced labour. These steps include:

  • respecting, promoting and realizing fundamental principles and rights at work;
  • targeted awareness-raising campaigns regarding sanctions for violating the prohibition on forced or compulsory labour;
  • steps to ensure that national laws and regulations concerning the employment relationship cover all sectors of the economy;
  • coordinated efforts to regulate, license and monitor labour recruiters and employment agencies and eliminate the charging of recruitment fees to workers;
  • giving to the relevant authorities, such as labour inspection services, the necessary mandate, resources and training to allow them to effectively enforce the law and cooperate with other organizations;
  • providing for the imposition of penalties, in addition to penal sanctions, such as the confiscation of profits of forced or compulsory labour and of other assets in accordance with national laws and regulations;
  • strengthening international cooperation between labour law enforcement institutions in addition to criminal law enforcement.