February 6, 2006
Today, at least 12.3 million people are subjected to some form of forced labor, and the people who exploit them are making at least $44 billion in profits, rivaling the performance of the world's oil companies, says Scientific American contributor Rodger Doyle.
Since the 1930s, forced labor has been an international concern and the International Labor Organization (ILO) -- an arm of the United Nations -- was created to study its growth. According to ILO, forced labor can be classified into three categories: economic, state-imposed and sexual, says Doyle.
- Economic exploitation, which accounts for 64 percent of the world total, occurs mostly in less developed countries and tends to affect the most marginalized; many of them are illiterate and understand little about their rights under the law, so they are more likely to fall into servitude.
- It also persists in the United States, primarily among illegal immigrants; there are an estimated 10,000 forced laborers at any given time, mostly Chinese and Mexicans working in California, Florida, New York and Texas.
- State-imposed exploitation accounts for 20 percent of the world total of forced labor; a chief concern is China's Reeducation through Labor program which imprisons, without trial, those who have committed what the government characterizes as antisocial acts.
- Sexual exploitation accounts for 11 percent of the world total and in industrial and transition countries, it accounts for about half; in the United States, nearly 15,000 runaway youths are sexually exploited every year.
Even though, most ILO member states have ratified the organization's forced labor conventions, national laws are often too vague to be effective and most offenses are not prosecuted. For any improvements to be made, member states must develop clear laws and commit the resources needed to enforce them, says Doyle.
Source: Rodger Doyle, "Modern Slavery," Scientific American, January 2006.
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