In 2021, an estimated 3.9 million people were forced to work by state authorities.1 It is among the most egregious forms of modern slavery as it involves states not only failing in their duty to safeguard human rights,2 but actively using their power to perpetrate abuse.
While international conventions recognise that states have the power to compel citizens to work, this is limited to specific circumstances; for example, compulsory military service or obligatory work or service for citizens in emergency situations such as famine and natural disaster. A state exceeds these limits when it compels citizens to work as a punishment for expressing or acting on political views, or for the purpose of economic development, or as a means of racial, ethnic, social, or religious discrimination.
State-imposed forced labour can be categorised into three major types: abuse of compulsory prison labour, abuse of conscription, and forced labour for economic development (Figure 1). Abuse of compulsory prison labour accounts for over half (56 percent) of all state-imposed forced labour.
Figure 1: Types of state-imposed forced labour (GEMS figure 16)
Our assessment of government responses to modern slavery found evidence of all forms of state-imposed forced labour across 17 countries. While most governments have taken some action to end modern slavery, these responses vary widely (Figure 2). All these actions are fundamentally undermined by the practice of state-imposed forced labour.
Figure 2: Government response scores among countries with reports of state-imposed forced labour (per cent) (higher score reflects stronger response)
Abuse of compulsory prison labour
Abuse of compulsory prison labour includes compulsory labour for those convicted of a non-violent political offence, non-violent participation in strikes, breaches of labour discipline, or as a means of discrimination. It also includes compulsory labour in administrative detention and abuse of prison labour for private interests. Reports indicate that state-imposed forced labour occurs in public and private prisons around the world, including Brazil,3 China,4 North Korea,5 Poland,6 Russia,7 Turkmenistan,8 the United States,9 Viet Nam,10 and Zimbabwe.11 It also occurs in migrant detention centres in Libya,12 re-education camps in China,13 administrative detention camps in North Korea,14 and in medical labour centres in Belarus15 and Viet Nam,16 in which citizens struggling with drug addiction are forced to work as part of their recovery.
The US has both the resources and longstanding political will to lead the fight against modern slavery, receiving the fifth highest government response score globally. However, these positive actions are belied by laws that allow state-imposed forced labour to occur. Under the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865), a sentence of involuntary servitude can still be handed down for an offence.17 Prisoners are summarily excluded from the scope of labour law protections — including those that prohibit forced labour — given that compulsory prison labour is considered a legal punishment rather than an economic activity.18 While international law permits compulsory prison labour under certain conditions, it cannot be used for the benefit of private parties, unless additional requirements are met.19 Detainees in US private prisons, including pre-trial detainees, allege that they have been forced to work without pay under the threat of punishment.20
While noting a lack of recent and available data in some countries such as China and North Korea, the US has the world’s largest rate of imprisonment, therefore the risk of state-imposed forced labour is particularly concerning.21 The burden of risk is disproportionately borne by people of colour, who are overrepresented among US prison populations, in part due to over-policing and historical mass criminalisation of their communities.22 This is particularly true for black men living in the US, who in 2020 were 5.7 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men.23 The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has urged the government to take steps to ensure prison sentences involving compulsory labour are not disproportionately issued due to racial discrimination in the criminal justice process.24 In December 2020, a joint resolution was introduced in the US Congress to amend the Constitution and prohibit involuntary servitude from being used to punish offenders.25
“… I had to work. You don’t get days off. You don’t get to have sick days. And if I didn’t go to work, it was a rule violation.” Dominique Morgan, a former inmate of Omaha Correctional Center, US, 202026
Abuse of conscription
Conscription constitutes state-imposed forced labour where conscripts are forced to perform work of a non-military nature.27 Abuse of conscription is evident in Egypt,28 Eritrea,29 Mali,30 and Mongolia.31 In 2022, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea reported that the Eritrean national service systematically subjects conscripts to forced labour.32 This followed a 2015 investigation by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, which found that the national service effectively served to “abuse, exploit and enslave” citizens.33 Forced labour in the national service is reported in the construction of roads, dams, and mines,34 teaching,35 and other sectors. Young people in their final year of secondary school are forced to combine exam preparation and military training at the Sawa military camp, with many also made to perform agricultural work on surrounding farms owned by government and military officials,36 and are later conscripted directly into the national service.37 In addition to intensive forced labour, conscripts receive harsh punishments and abuse, with females also experiencing sexual violence and harassment.38 Eritreans who flee to evade forced conscription, including unaccompanied children,39 face heightened vulnerability to modern slavery along dangerous migration routes40 in addition to the threat of detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing if they are caught.41
“Although some conscripts perform purely military roles in the army, most draftees are assigned to work in civilian administration, infrastructure projects, education and construction and perform other duties, without any free choice about the area of their employment.” Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, 202142
Compulsory labour for the purpose of economic development, and abuse of the obligation to perform work beyond normal civic obligations or minor communal services
States may perpetrate forced labour through abuse of the obligation to perform work beyond normal civic duties. This is reported in Myanmar, for example, where members of Chin and Rakhine ethnic groups report being forced to work by military forces (Tatmadaw) as labourers and porters.43 In 2019, four villages in Chin state were required to supply one worker per family to transport food rations for the military.44 Rohingya were also reportedly forced to construct security camps for the Tatmadaw under inhumane conditions and the threat of violence.45 In 2020, disturbing evidence emerged of children being forced by the Tatmadaw to clear landmines and work in portering, with some children reportedly used as human shields.46
Compulsory labour is also exacted by state authorities for the purpose of economic development. In Turkmenistan, workers and students are forced to participate in the annual cotton harvest, which runs from September to November, for little or no compensation or under the threat of punishment.47 Public sector workers including doctors and teachers are enlisted to pick cotton, or are made to send others in their place.48 The private sector may also be required to supply workers, while vulnerable groups such as migrants and students are also forced to work.49 An estimated 198,000 metric tonnes of cotton are produced in Turkmenistan per year, making cotton the fourth most valuable export for the government.50 The cotton — and the state-imposed forced labour through which it is harvested — enters the global market through complex supply chains.51 Activists such as the Cotton Campaign are increasing pressure on the government to reform this system and call on other governments to adopt robust import controls and businesses to avoiding sourcing Turkmen cotton.52
In Rwanda, compulsory labour is present in Umuganda, a national community service that takes place once every month.53 While Umuganda is widely believed to benefit the community,54 the practice is compulsory for those age 18 to 65 years and failure to participate may result in a fine or other penalty under Law No. 53/2007 Establishing Community Works in Rwanda.55 While the prescription of fines in practice is unclear, the law establishes a threat of penalty for non-participation. In 2021, CEACR requested that the Rwandan government ensure community works are limited to “minor services” in line with international standards.56
While there is much progress yet to be made, there were significant positive developments since 2018. In Uzbekistan, following years of collaboration with the ILO and civil society,57 a global boycott of Uzbek cotton,58 and a commitment from the government to end its use of forced labour in the annual cotton harvest,59 independent civil society monitoring by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found that no forced labour was imposed by the central government in 2021.60 In 2022 however, the Forum reported that despite firm political will to prevent forced labour, risks persist in the tightly controlled cotton harvest due to pressure to meet production targets.61 Continued engagement is needed to create an enabling environment for labour rights by strengthening civic participation and protections for freedom of association and expression.62
Tainted supply chains
State-imposed forced labour may seem like an issue contained within national borders, yet many products associated with forms of state-imposed forced labour end up in global supply chains, with implications for governments, businesses, and consumers around the world. During the pandemic, for example, personal protective equipment (PPE) at risk of being produced using forced labour of Uyghurs was reportedly imported to Australia102 and the United Kingdom,103 and PPE produced using forced labour of North Korean women in China was reportedly procured by the UK government.104
Businesses that profit from state-imposed forced labour are increasingly exposed to associated legal, financial, and reputational risks.105 As noted above, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in February 2020 that a mining company could be prosecuted in Canada for using the forced labour of conscripts at their mine in Eritrea.106 A confidential settlement was reached following the decision.107 At the time of writing, other legal actions are underway in Germany, the Netherlands, and France against companies that allegedly used state-imposed forced labour in their supply chains.108
State-imposed forced labour is arguably the most challenging form of modern slavery to address. Ending abuses by the state against the very citizens it is entrusted to protect requires strong political commitment. While governments imposing forced labour must ultimately take action to reform the systems that enable their abuse, the reality is that change is most likely to arise from sustained external pressure from other governments, businesses, and civil society.
Recommendations for governments
Governments committing state-imposed forced labour must immediately publicly acknowledge the existence of serious human rights violations that are tantamount to state-imposed forced labour and take actions to end it. This must include addressing underlying persecution and discrimination driving state-imposed forced labour practices and repealing legislation and criminalising practices that allow state-imposed forced labour to occur.
Other governments must prioritise human rights and take action, including:
Leverage bilateral relations, trade, and other diplomatic measures to pressure perpetrators of state-imposed forced labour to eradicate the practice, including introducing Magnitsky-style and other coordinated sanctions.
Strengthen public procurement systems to prevent sourcing goods made with state-imposed forced labour and ban companies from tendering if they are connected to state-imposed forced labour.
Introduce legislation requiring businesses to conduct mandatory human rights due diligence to avoid sourcing goods made with state-imposed forced labour, banning import of goods made with state-imposed forced labour, and prohibiting the export of goods to companies using state-imposed forced labour.
Introduce restrictions on investments connected to state-imposed labour.
Recommendations for business
Where state-imposed forced labour exists in a country, region, industry, or company and if operating in line with the UN Guiding Principles has become impossible (for example, conducting due diligence or providing effective remediation), withdraw from sourcing goods and services from that country, region, industry, or company as necessary.
Avoid investing in companies connected to state-imposed forced labour, for example, private equity investments that might contribute, or listed equity investments that might be directly linked, to state-imposed forced labour.