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The ILO Protocol on Forced Labour has entered into force. What does this mean for exploited workers in the UK?

November 29, 2016

On the 9th of November 2016 the ILO Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention entered into force. The Protocol is a legally-binding agreement that requires governments to strengthen global efforts and take new measures to tackle forced labour. It builds on labour standards laid out in previous ILO Conventions and provides additional protective measures to prevent forced labour, to protect and assist victims, and to provide support through access to legal remedy and compensation.

The UK was one of the first countries to ratify the Protocol in January 2016, and will be legally obliged to implement its standards across its laws and policies from January 2017. Earlier this year FLEX welcomed the UK ratification of the Protocol as an important step forward, but cautioned that greater resources were needed to ensure effective implementation in the fight against labour exploitation and forced labour.

What is the ILO Convention and Protocol on Forced Labour?

Under the 1930 convention forced labour is defined as ‘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’. The new Forced Labour Protocol complements the 1930 convention by requiring states to take effective measures to prevent and eliminate forced labour and to provide protection and compensation for victims regardless of their immigration status. The Protocol also calls for employer due diligence to mitigate the risks of forced labour in business and supply chains, and requires governments to strengthen labour inspection systems in order to ensure workers are protected from exploitation.

Forced Labour responses in the UK

According to the Home Office there are an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. In 2015 3,266 potential victims were referred to the UK National Referral Mechanism, and the most common exploitation type recorded among adults and children was labour exploitation.

Through the Modern Slavery Act the UK Government has made a commitment to tackle all forms of modern slavery, including trafficking for labour exploitation and forced labour. However, as recently stated by FLEX, the Modern Slavery Act alone is not sufficient to tackle labour exploitation in the UK. According to a report published by the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, many cases of modern slavery are not reported as crimes, and are therefore never investigated. This includes cases of trafficking for labour exploitation. Therefore, the criminal penalties introduced in the Modern Slavery Act alone cannot prevent labour exploitation or forced labour. Prevention can only be achieved by understanding and addressing the structural vulnerabilities in the labour market, by funding labour inspectorates to do their jobs properly, taking a nuanced approach to workplace exploitation and by prioritising workers’ rights.

Prevention through Labour Inspection

As recognised in the new Forced Labour Protocol, labour inspection is critical to upholding workers’ rights and preventing forced labour and exploitation. Alongside the ILO, FLEX has long advocated for victim-centred labour inspection as a key component of an effective anti-trafficking strategy and highlighted labour inspectors’ central role in identifying and protecting victims of human trafficking and forced labour. In 2015, FLEX published a Policy Blueprint on Combatting Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation through Labour Inspection. The blueprint called for sufficient resources and staffing to ensure the UK´s labour inspectorates can fulfill their role, and recommended a firewall between immigration control and labour inspection to empower vulnerable workers to come forward and report workplace abuses.

Research by the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) has shown that, when labour abuses go unchallenged they can develop into labour exploitation or even forced labour.  If the UK is serious about eliminating forced labour it must give adequate resources to labour inspectorates to fully and proactively investigate not only incidents of forced labour, but also to identify labour abuses, paying particular attention to violations such as non-payment of national minimum wage, unfair dismissal, or breach of contract.

The ILO Protocol comes into effect in January 2017 and the UK has two months to prepare. The Protocol recognises the need to strengthen labour inspection services as part of efforts to tackle forced labour. Let’s hope the labour inspectorates are given the resources they need to do this.