DPI/NGO Briefing
Highlights - 14 May 2009

“Forced Labour: the Cost of Coercion”

Roger Plant, Director of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour at the International Labour Organization (ILO) opened his presentation by announcing that the 2009 ILO Global Report was being launched that day. The Report, entitled ‘The Cost of Coercion,’ he explained, had a dual message. The first was that there was an ‘opportunity cost ’or economic opportunity lost due to the use of forced labour, by victims, their families, governments, legitimate business, and society at large. The second was that though the world was faced with the current economic crisis, stimulated by greed and exploitation, it was also faced with the equally important ‘crisis of labour markets and labour institutions.’ In both crises, those taking advantage of workers were not only acting outside the law, but were also taking advantage of loop-holes in the law for extracting profits from the most vulnerable in the world, particularly migrant workers. Mr. Plant explained that forced labour was a crisis that not only involved criminal law enforcement, but the involvement of employer’s organizations, trade unions, labor inspectors and labor administrations, all working together with ministries of interior justice to end on all forms of coercion.

"Some $21 billion dollars had been ‘stolen’ from workers.."

The Report explains why forced labour exists, what can be done to combat it and by whom. Mr. Plant noted that an important message of the ILO emanating from the Report was that while the most flagrant examples of forced labour were obvious there were much more subtle forms of coercion that needed to be addressed because of the fact that they caused equal human suffering. Factors behind these subtle forms of coercion often included making vulnerable people financially indebted by charging them excessive recruitment charges that they are forced to pay off by working in sub-standard conditions. Mr. Plant informed the audience that some $21 billion dollars had been ‘stolen’ from workers through this type of coercion. He urged that many different forms of justice were needed to clamp down on coercive recruitment and subtle methods of coercion. He concluded that the ILO was working very intensively on a business alliance against forced labour, and had produced guidance documents to get business, trade unions and civil society more involved in the fight against coercive practices.

“Anybody who benefits from forced labour commits a crime.”

Robert Moossy,
Director of the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit in the U. S. Department of Justice began by informing the Briefing that the United States has statues that criminalize forced labour and attempts to exact labour through coercion. “Anybody who benefits from forced labour commits a crime,” he declared, referring to the fact that the US Congress recently enacted a provision to the law making it illegal to benefit from forced labour.

The crime has a 20 year maximum prison sentence for each crime perpetrated on a victim and mandatory restitution for victims. Illegal profits and assets involved in the prohibited activity are sold and the money is given to the victims as compensation. He informed the Briefing that in 2009 alone there had been 1,400 human trafficking victims identified across the US, of which about 350 were labour trafficking victims. He gave the example of two cases which he prosecuted successfully one which took place in Fort Myers, Florida and involved a group of 8 migrant workers working in a tomato fields.

These migrants who were alcoholics were locked in boxed trucks and held under the watchful supervision of an armed individual. They were chained when they were not working. Each of the 4 individuals prosecuted in this case received 10 year sentences. The second case was in Milwaukee where a Filipino woman with little education was employed by a doctor. She lived in the basement of his home but was not allowed to leave and was psychologically abused. Both doctors involved in this case were imprisoned for coercion and the woman was granted $950,000 in restitution.

Mr. Moossy made the point that the victims of this type of coercion were exploited in the most heinous of ways. He also stressed that exploitation of this type which relied on imprisonment of the mind was just as coercive as actually being imprisoned. He suggested that three major issues needed to be addressed by the Justice Department when investigating or prosecuting forced labour cases.

The first was identifying the use of subtle coercion, particularly on vulnerable victims who either lacked proper immigration status, or abused alcohol or drugs. The justice system would also have to take account of how veiled threats are used in this type of coercion to exact forced labour. The second issue was recognizing that victims required both a humanitarian and a practical response to their cases, which meant pursuing a victim-centered approach to their prosecution including providing immigration status, refugee benefits and work permits, as well as the possibility of civil prosecution. Thirdly, there was a need to look at the complexity of this form of criminal behaviour as it involved other crimes, such as immigration issues and debt, and pointed to the need to find an approach as to how the issue of investigation in theses cases should be conducted. The Justice department had 42 funded task-forces to identify human trafficking cases and approach these cases in a holistic way, including the use of labour inspectors, alcohol and beverage commission inspectors, and getting NGOs to provide victim’s services.

In the view of Mr. Moossy important next steps in dealing with the issue of forced labour included continuing outreach and training for citizens and police officers to enable them to identify forced labour practices, investigating fraud in visa programmes where recruiters bring people to the US at greater debt than is acceptable, recognizing the importance of civil suits and the need for civil human trafficking lawyers to prosecute the ‘big pockets’ who benefit from forced labour. Mr. Moossy concluded by emphasizing that there was a need to recognize that forced labour operated on a spectrum of activities aimed at labour exploitation and that this issue must be addressed at its earliest stages in order to begin to put an end to all forms of forced labour.

Maria Suarez, formerly trafficked and a victim of forced labour told her story which began when she came from Mexico to the United States at the age of 15 with her father. He returned home but she decided to remain in the US with her sister. She was offered a job by a stranger, and when she accepted was taken to meet her new employer at his home. Noticing the locks on the doors and windows, she felt as if she was in the wrong place but was young and naïve and did not expect anything untoward to happen.

After being held for three days, she was told by her employer that he had paid for her, and that he could do whatever he wanted with her. She was physically, sexually, mentally and spiritually abused by her captor for the next five years. He threatened to kill her family and told her that whenever she left the house to go to work he was watching her every move. He took all her paychecks. In 1981 a young couple rented the apartment behind the home of her captor. When the husband discovered the captor was trying to make sexual advances on his wife, he killed him. Ms. Suarez did not witness the murder, but was asked by the perpetrator to hide the murder weapon, which she did. When the police arrested the perpetrator Ms. Suarez was asked to produce the murder weapon which she did. Sometime later she was arrested as an accessory to the murder and after a one year trial, defended by a disbarred lawyer working on his first murder case; she was sentenced to 25 years to life, of which she served 22 years. After her release from prison, she served another 5 months and 7 days in prison on charges brought by the Immigration and Naturalization Services because her green card had been taken due to the heightened security following 9/11. Ms. Suarez said even though it had been 30 years since she has first experienced being in a situation of forced labour, she still lived with the pain of her experience.

"About 1.2 billion people lived on a budget of less than $1.25 a day"

Carol Smolenski, Executive Director and co-founder of the organisation End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-USA stated that there was domestic servitude in the United States in large measure as a result of economic globalization which was contributing to the supply of poor people sold into sexual exploitation or forced labour.

Ms. Smolenski explained that changes in technology and policies of international institutions had made it easier for goods, firms and money to travel around the world. Companies could more easily invest in foreign nations, which had cheap labour and fewer government regulations. While foreign investment had contributed to the reduction of poverty in the world, it had also led to rapid and seemingly inescapable unemployment. About 1.2 billion people lived on a budget of less than $1.25 a day, which she noted, explained why 25,000 children died each day due to poverty and why 27-28% of children in the developing world were estimated to be underweight or stunted.

Ms. Smolenski suggested that immense poverty in the developing world also explained why desperate people attempted to move around the world- sometimes illegally- to find work, placing themselves at risk for forced labour and trafficking.

The International Organization on Migration estimated that in 2005 that there were 191 million migrants, up from 176 million in 2000; of this number, some 30-40 million were ‘unauthorized migrants’. She asserted that the current system of international governance promoted the free flow of money and goods across national boundaries, but did not provide the free, safe and regulated flow of labour across national boundaries. Devastating poverty, the threat of starvation, and lack of job opportunities led people in the developing world to accept offers for themselves or their children to work in cities in the developed world.

These opportunities were seen as the only way out of their bleak economic situation, however, those accepting these jobs were easy targets for traffickers and were easily pushed into situations of forced labour in countries where they knew no one, had no money and did not speak the language.

Q&A Session:

A number of questions were posed to Ms. Suarez on how difficult it had been for her to recount her story.

Ms. Suarez remarked that initially she did not even admit to herself that she was a victim because of the pain and embarrassment it caused her. Eventually a friend convinced her to speak out. She emphasized the need for people to open their eyes to the issue of forced labour and expressed the view that sharing her story was a way to help others avoid her experience.

Questions were raised on what happens to illegal migrants caught in the trap of forced labour.

Mr. Plant noted that in cases of persons with irregular migration situations the Labour Inspectors first responsibility was protection of the victim and in some cases those arrested were allowed to remain in the country.

Mr. Moosey remarked that one of the problems in rooting out forced labour was getting the victims to talk, as in many cases they could not articulate what had happened to them.

He also expressed the view that law enforcement officials needed to gather as much information as possible before undertaking raids on businesses suspected of harbouring trafficked or forced labourers. He also suggested that deportation proceedings should be delayed while prosecutors tried to get information from victims.

Both Mr. Moossy and Mr. Plant remarked on the fact that in addressing the issue of forced labour countries had to face the competing interests of ending forced labour and assisting its victims.

Several questions were raised about the human rights of migrant workers.

One questioner asked whether immigration laws could be changed in light of the links to trafficking and forced labour.

Mr. Moossy asserted that many times national immigration law, and a state’s right to control migration, led to greater victimization of those forced to work under inhumane conditions.

He added that many changes were being made to US immigration law specifically in relation to trafficked victims to protect these victims and their families, as well as to allow them to pursue a new life in the US.

Looking at the effects of the global economic crisis on the issue of trafficking, Mr. Plant responded that the 2009 Global Report on Forced Labour examined the failure of companies and international institutions to curb and regulate abuse and excessive financial practices.

Excessive business practices had led impoverished millions around the world and lack of employment opportunities had forced them to migrate. This desperation to find work abroad had contributed to the increased use of coercion and forced labour on vulnerable workers.

Questioners raised the issue as to what was the ILO doing to address multi-national corporations exploiting cheap labour.

Mr. Plant responded that protecting the rights of workers was one of the pillars of the ILO’s Decent Work Campaign and a priority of the ILO. Mr. Moosey commented that the rules of trade needed to be more balanced so as to address the ability of people, especially the poor, to make a living wage. This he suggested would be one means of preventing problems of exploitation of the poor.

Mr. Plant stressed that in attempting to end forced labour the role of Labour was to ensure that the issue of supply and demand was balanced in a rationale way. He also suggested that employers organizations, workers and governments needed to come together to stamp out the practices of trafficking and forced labour. Private employment, he recommended, should be monitored, licensed and regulated.

A question was raised on the importance of civil society providing protection for those who were trafficked or forced into labour situations.

Ms. Smolenski noted that there was still a long way to go in raising awareness of this issue.

Other questions were raised on how victims could go about filing civil suits.

Mr. Moossy responded that civil suits were pursued by a victim through an attorney for financial compensation. He also noted that in these cases the burden of proof was much lower than in criminal cases.

Mr. Plant responded to a question regarding the ILO’s stance on the recent Global Plan of Action of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, by stating that no official position had been taken because the Plan had not yet been submitted to the ILO’s governing body for review.

In response to a question as to what suggestions Ms. Suarez had on how situations like hers could be avoided.

Ms. Suarez stressed a greater need to educate poor people in villages in developing counties about the dangers of trafficking, as this is where many of the potential victims of trafficking resided. She emphasized that these were the people who needed to be empowered to protect themselves from becoming victims.

This Briefing was attended by over 170 representatives of NGOs, United Nations and Permanent Mission staff as well as interns from various Departments and NGOs


Prepared by Gail B-T Sainté with assistance from Jennifer Basch. Dated: 15 May 2009
United Nations, Department of Public Information, NGO Relations,

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