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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 March 2007, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Q&A: Your questions about the slave trade
Roger Plant answers your questions about modern day forced labour

Q: Why, 200 years after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the Empire, does slavery still exist?
Hasit, Leamington Spa

A: Most of the worst forms of abuse associated with slavery-like practices can be covered by other criminal law, such as violence, blackmail etc.

But abolishing a social evil by law does not necessarily get rid of it. And with modern forms of slavery the main problem is law enforcement rather than the letter of the law itself.

Poverty cannot explain forced labour and modern slavery, but they certainly thrive in a climate of poverty.

Q: Are there different types of slavery today? What is the most common type?
Richard Pearce, Bradford

A: Slavery is one form of forced labour, involving absolute control by one person or group over another.

In its Global Report on forced labour in 2005, the ILO distinguished between three main types of forced labour:

That imposed directly by the state. Governments can be directly responsible for imposing forced labour, for either political or economic purposes or a mixture of both.

That which is linked to a longstanding pattern of poverty and discrimination against caste or indigenous minorities.

That which is associated with modern day trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation or otherwise involves coercion against migrant workers.

About 80 per cent of forced labour today is privately imposed and a common feature (whether affecting indigenous peoples, young women trafficked for sexual exploitation, or abusive forms of contract labour) is that some form of debt bondage or debt slavery is involved.

Q: What are the main differences between modern day slavery and the transatlantic slave trade?
Mantej, Amsterdam

A: The transatlantic slave trade was accepted by the slave societies until its abolition, and the slave masters had total control.

What happens today is manifestly illegal, and there are usually criminal laws to punish it.

Almost every member state has ratified the ILO's Conventions on forced labour under which the practise is a serious criminal offence that should be severely punished.

Today ruthless persons are either flouting the law, or operating on the margins of the law, to make the greatest possible profit from exploiting the vulnerable.

In the case of much sex trafficking and the most serious labour exploitation, organised crime is involved.

Q: Surely people can resist being sold into slavery? Why do they not seek the protection of their police or governments?
Sarah, Solihull

A: If only it was so easy. Much forced labour occurs in developing countries where the police and labour inspectors have limited power to move against traditional elites.

And when migrants endure forced labour in the industrialised world they can be terrified to report their plight to the police for fear of deportation.

This is why many anti-trafficking laws and policies are now seeking more protection for the victims who do denounce their conditions.

A common feature of forced labour is that some form of debt bondage or debt slavery is involved.

Debt-bondage involves an exploiter inducing the vulnerable into debts, which may take years or even generations to work off.

Q: Are current day slave traders being hunted down with the same sense of purpose as drug traffickers and terrorists? Or are societies turning a blind eye?
Janice, UK

A: Most slavery-like practices are hidden in the underground economy or remote areas, and sometimes the forms of coercion are subtle and difficult to detect.

So law enforcement agencies and prosecutors will need to be proactive, providing clear guidance and allocating resources, if they are to come to grips with the range of forced labour practices in the modern economy.

Our concern is the very low rate of prosecutions anywhere in the world for the crimes of forced labour and trafficking.

But the awareness is gradually growing, and this is being translated slowly but surely into stronger legislation for trafficking offences, and high penalties.

Q: What practical measures are being taken by the international community to eradicate forced labour?
Stewart Peel, Texas, US

A: The international community, including the ILO and UN partner agencies, is active on many front.

International laws, like the trafficking Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, or the ILO's Conventions on forced labour and the worst forms of child labour, are necessary for providing definitions and broad policy approaches.

Research and data gathering are all essential, as is detailed guidance for police, prosecutors, labour inspectors, judges and others on to how to identify complex forced labour situations in practice.

The ILO's Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour is doing all of this, and continually seeking new partners for a Global Alliance against Forced Labour.

It is also working with financial institutions and development agencies, getting them to understand that eradicating the bonded labour systems that lock poor communities in continued poverty can be a very effective way of poverty reduction and empowerment.

Q: Are the governments of the countries most affected by forced labour taking enough responsibility for its eradication?
Francis, Paris

A: Forced labour is a truly global problem with almost no country altogether immune.

It's encouraging that several countries in Asia and Latin America have quite recently faced up the problems, sponsoring research, creating broad-based commissions on forced labour, training civil servants and judges.

Brazil has created a special mobile police unit to investigate cases of forced labour and release the victims.

But too many other countries are still in denial, fearing that documented recognition of the nature or extent of forced labour practices could sully its international image.

A country which does face rigorously up to its forced labour problems and take remedial action should be commended for doing so rather than risk an adverse impact on, for example, its trade relations.

Where trafficking or abuse of contract labour systems are concerned, there is a common responsibility of governments in the sender and destination countries.

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