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Statement by UN Special Rapporteur on Slavery at the Human Rights and the Financial Crisis in Focus: an expert meeting on promoting a rights-based approach to financial regulation and economic recovery

Vienna, 1 July 2013

Human cost of economic crisis

I would like to that you for convening this important expert discussion. Listening to news every day, traveling on mission and meeting people in the field one can clearly document the devastating impacts it has on lives of people across the globe, and specifically on those children, women and men in the poorest countries in distant, isolated areas. It is also concerning to see it’s harmful impact in progress and time development and document that measures taken to divert the impact are not sufficiently effective and even more they alarmingly minimize the space for the application of human rights of people. Threatening the loss of full range of human rights, the economic crisis might turn into human rights crisis if the programs addressing it will not be diagnosed and new ones having in center human rights dimension developed. It is sad to stress that economic crisis importantly reveled the failure of the states to create the enabling conditions for their citizens to access and exercise the full range of protection provided under the human rights law and once and again we can record the gap between obligation of the states under human rights law and real implementation. Any the crisis provides with important opportunity to rethink and reprioritize approaches and select for primary aid groups that need protection . There has been developed positive experience in the past addressing the economic crisis through strengthening ‘ normative dimensions’, development of mechanisms of enforcement of application of human rights , concentrating all the efforts on preserving the achieved standards in protection and build subsequent progress on them.

I would like to bring to your attentions the impact on the following groups: children in slavery, working in slave conditions, forced laborers, women and men migrant workers, domestic workers in different parts of the world and impact of austerity measures on women in Europe.

Today, in 2013, when entire world has declared abolition of slavery and developed programs and legislation to outlaw slavery it all its forms, there are still many millions of children who are born into slavery to pay the debts of generations of their ancestors, millions of children for whom childhood, living with family ,freedom and recognition of their identity is denied. Socially invisible these children know no other life as to work to survive and fight for daily existence. These invisible children work in the most dangerous areas, isolated from outside world by the walls of homes they have been given to work sometimes as early as 5 years old as domestic servants, geography- working in artisanal gold and other precious stone and mineral mines in the most isolated and distant areas, agriculture, in garment industry in supply chains, brick making. The list of products produced by children is endless, similarly is endless the list of violations of their rights. Extensive exploitation, humiliation, rape, violence, psychological and physical trauma, hunger – are just some but very regular situations these children face. According to ILO 126 million children in the world are working in hazardous conditions and 1.2 million are trafficked and exploited every year as child labourers, though because of nature of crime the figures are always approximate, numbers presented in reports seem to be pick of iceberg, when one travels to field to document the situation. Only in domestic work , according to IPEC–SIMPOC, as of 2008, 15,525,000 children aged 5–17 were employed.

What does economic crisis mean for these children – extension of exploitation from one form to multipurpose exploitation (I have been documenting it in some countries),never realized dreams to do to school, cut in programs that have been addressing child slavery, worst forms of child labour, cuts in social subsidies for poor families , thus leaving them without other option as to force them to send their children to work. In absolute poverty children become for families partners for survival, economic gain, goods to exchange, not the ones that need to be taken care of. I have come across the new trends in child exploitation when, during economic crisis, children were hired as working hands by low income families, which was turning for the child in severe multipurpose exploitation: domestic servitude at home and hard work outside home in markets, shops ,carrying heavy goods.

Many programs funded from outside donors, or by local or international businesses have been suspended due to economic crisis and is some countries where austerity measures were applied they have been completely stopped . In Latin America there have been developed many effective programs that had impressive results saving many thousands of children from the grip of slavery. Some of them have been extraordinary operational addressing root causes of slavery and embracing children from very far regions. Currently some of these programs have been shut down, others have only very limited coverage and resources.

Some examples documented by World Vision in Cambodia, India and Thailand: with fall on demands on export driven jobs for adults with economic crisis ,businesses in these area have tendency to lay off their workers without warning and force families to find income sources through sending children to work. In Cambodia number of children working in brick factories significantly increased as children are send to pay off the parents debts. In Thailand increase of children has been noticed in clubs and bars. In India children work in making gravel for almost 16 hours a day, doing hard work but receiving less than adults. So making the vicious circle to operate: child labour causes poverty and poverty causes child labour. It's a dangerous spiral downward. Is not it child rights crisis? The price of loss it too high: future of many million of children.

In today’s world, slavery takes many different forms: human trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour, servitude – the common between all these forms is that these people are controlled and forced to work against their will and their dignity and rights are denied. According to recent ILO data forced labour impacts on lives of more than 21 million people. With some old forms preserved, other more persistent ones transmute into new ones, and these emerging new ones due to new systems of production and manufacture in the global economy, the emergence of global supply chains with having sometimes at the very end the private household level of production, slavery exist and flourish due to low political will of the states to address slavery, insufficient understanding of complexity of phenomena and unwillingness to accept the existence of some of it’s forms, low enforcement of criminal sanctions and impunity, corruption. Today’s forced labour is not limited to developing countries, but exists even in the most advanced industrial democracies of the West.

There has been numerous studies recognizing significant impact brought by current economic crisis: drastic increase in unemployment rate and poverty, that brought it its turn raise in vulnerability threshold of a workforce, increased exposure to trafficking for forced labour, bonded labour and organ trafficking and from the other side increase in demand for cheap labour, raise in organized criminal networks, exploiting this vulnerabilities. Reported statistics, published by Eurostat, show that around 23,600 people were trafficked between 2008 and 2010. The figure rose each studied year with 6,309 in 2008; 7795 in 2009 and 9,528 in 2010. High ranking EU official in her recent presentation stated: “We see signs of organized crime gangs increasing their trafficking activities as demand for forced labour increases in the EU in parallel with the worsening economic crisis.”

According to US department of state the forced labor implications of the financial crisis are particularly stark for Asia, with extremely high job insecurity. Majority almost seventy percent of unemployment is in in formal sector in South and Southeast where forced labour prevalence is very high. According to ILO data almost 77 percent of victims of forced labour are in that region.

Signs in increase in forced and bonded labour have been also reported in media in many parts of the world. According to US state department report in Eastern Europe, international organizations and local authorities have been presenting an alarming rise in victims of labor exploitation. The global economic downturn is exacerbated this trend. In Belarus, more than 800,000 citizens are believed to be “missing,” presumed to be working—voluntarily or otherwise—in Russia. Workers earning low wages or losing their jobs are succumbing to offers for illegal work abroad. In Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, one-quarter of the population has migrated. In Ukraine, officials reported 53 criminal cases of labor exploitation in 2008, up from 23 cases in 2007 and just three in 2006—while the ILO’s May 2009 report on global forced labor trends notes that the number of identified victims of forced labor in Ukraine now surpasses that of sex trafficking victims. Many families due to economic crisis have not been able to cover tuition of children or urgent medical need, or mortgage, have been taking debts from employers, banks and getting into bonded debt, working to cover it almost free under threat of losing even this meager salary. Numerous NGO’s from Asia have been reporting increase in boded labour when they have to take loans to cover their health and social costs and cannot repay.

Another area of concern of violation of human rights and labour rights in supply chains of translational corporations, specifically when the production chains are in distant areas of developing countries .There have been recognition that more and more companies have acknowledged that they must operate in transparency and responsibly and work to uphold international agreements on human rights and promote decent work , though the cases of severe exploitation of people are still rampant .In recent times more and more awareness grows on the goods and services supply chains are not immune to the presence of child labour and forced labour of adults.

Tragic events in Bangladesh factory, are not single case and appalling conditions under which thousands of people agree to work in many parts of the world, as poverty did not leave them many options. This case also revealed the hidden tragedy behind just bad working conditions: bonded slave labour, confiscation of documents, vulnerability imposed by labour and immigration system as their stay is connected to work contract signed by employer. The system of labour sponsorship and of dependency of worker’s immigration status and time of stay in the country from the employer is trap for worker as he/she has to endure all humiliation and exploitation , as outside the employer’s enterprise/home he /she is illegal. This trap known in Lebanese context as Kafala and spread in many countries of Middle East and outside has been tool of extreme exploitation and enslavement of many migrant domestic workers.

The economic crisis increased the level of exploitation and violation of rights of workers specifically migrant workers. In a tragic and unprecedented event, up to 30 migrant strawberry pickers in Greece have been shot by at least one farm supervisor in a pay dispute that shows precarious and exploitative employment arrangements in Europe have hit rock bottom. There have been many stories of migrant workers being denied their wages, the shooting allegedly occurred after around 200 workers requested six months of unpaid wages owing to them. The tragedy is testimony to the destructive impact of austerity measures imposed in Greece, whereby migrant and posted workers are increasingly replacing open-ended contract and even temporary workers because they represent the cheapest form of labour. The unequal treatment suffered by these migrant workers, like many others across Europe today, not only leads to stress, health problems and social exclusion for the workers concerned, but social dumping for local workers. Existence and proliferation of slavery is the most visible sign that we are facing tremendous crisis of good governance and low level of application of human rights obligation by the states.

Austerity measures introduced as temporary measure in some countries to protect population from harsh impact of economic crisis put under threat the achievements in gender equality and impact heavily on girls and women. slows down or even reverses progress in key social indicators, such as infant mortality and school accessibility and average years of schooling. It increases income inequality and vulnerability .According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Plan International, a one percent fall in gross domestic product (GDP) increases infant mortality by 7.4 deaths per 1,000 for girls versus 1.5 for boys. Primary school completion rates fall during recession, with girls experiencing a 29 percent decrease versus 22 percent for boys.

As for women, according to European Women’s Lobby they are losing jobs in both the private and public sectors, which has an immediate effect on household income but a much longer term effect on the role of women in the labour force. In addition, austerity measures such as wage and pension cuts, increased consumption taxes and cuts to social safety nets and services disproportionately impact women due to their vulnerable position in the labour market, lower average incomes than men, greater reliance on social protection and basic services, and primary responsibility for care work in the household. In Europe, female workforce participation has declined, women’s unemployment rate is higher than that of men in many countries, and the gender pay gap has increased .In developing countries, crisis and austerity have pushed many more women into informal and vulnerable work.

Austerity has also undermined progress towards a more equal division of care responsibilities. Cuts in public care and health services have led to a re-privatization of care work and a return to traditional gender roles. Austerity pushes the responsibility for, and cost of, social and public goods back onto households, and in effect, onto women.

Because women tend to be employed on fragile, non-permanent contracts, they are more vulnerable to being laid off during recessions and take jobs in informal labour and domestic work in many situations with no contracts and no protection.

We all know that economic crisis is never pro poor and vulnerable and pro human rights. It exploits the exploited. Existence and proliferation of slavery is the most visible sign that we are facing tremendous crisis of good governance and the effectiveness of the programs developed and responses formulated.

The cost is too high and would be very hard to recover, unless urgent comprehensive pro human rights policies and effective implantation mechanisms developed.

  • Economic crisis provides with important opportunities to rethink priorities and models developed previously to address challenges imposed by it and even within the most limited budget to address the need of protection of the most vulnerable groups: specifically poor vulnerable families children and adults victims of all forms of slavery. Poverty cycle will perpetuate though generations, if resolute steps will not be taken by the states. Slavery will continue challenge generations translating into even more uglier forms if states and international community will not take recognize it’s existence in all its versatile forms and take resolute steps. States have ratified important International legal tools and developed local ones, it is their responsibility to enforce and monitor implementation of these legal tools. It is specifically important in the times of such challenges as economic crisis to develop mechanisms of control over implementation of human rights norms. For these rightness many millions of children and adults application of human rights standards, providing access to exercise their rights and protection means important transformation from rightless status of slave to protected and empowered citizen. It is impossible to achieve development denying the rights and dignity and creative potential of so many children and adults in the world. Recognizing the importance of human rights perspective creates important basis for transformation and change opens a path for accountability and offers the potential for profound change.States should with due diligence develop policies to reduce vulnerability to both internally and externally caused economic crises. Accountability and development of effective protection remedies is imperative here. To address modern challenges it is extremely important to have good knowledge on their nature and dynamics. For example: forced labour cannot be addressed only from the perspective of violation of labour standards, or criminal law only, the answers have to be found in multisectoral having enforcement of human rights in the center. Similarly policy responses require transnational, multi-level responses through law, policy and activism.

And of course economic crisis is about poor is about enhancing discrimination and the following objectives should be met:

  • In addressing the poor households to ensure that they are able to maintain their consumption and ensure that the poor do not lose whatever access they have to basic social services , paying special attention to access of children to education. The programs should be inclusive , addressing those in the most invisible situations domestic workers , working in the mines.
  • Prevent permanent reversals in the human, financial and physical capital of the poor. All the programs should be audited on gender equality and antidiscrimination.
  • Special attention should be provided to the most vulnerable members within the household (children, women, the elderly, and the sick) from bearing the brunt of adjustment. Special interest of children should be central in developing programs addressing child labour
  • State and non state actors should jointly mobilise their activities to avert self-defeating behavior such as criminal activity, substance abuse, prostitution, and exploitative forms of child labor, trafficking in humans
  • These objectives should be pursued in three key policy areas: the macroeconomic policy mix, the composition of fiscal adjustment and social safety nets.
  • Stricter accountability have to be developed for the companies that have supply chains and monitoring of implementation of the Codes of Conducts and other legislation addressing protection of workers and sanctioning for violation of rights of workers and development of very strong compensatory remedies to individuals, whose rights have been violated :be it child or adult.