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Debt bondage remains the most prevalent form of forced labour worldwide – New UN report

GENEVA (15 September 2016) – Debt bondage remains one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in all regions of the world despite being banned in international law and most domestic jurisdictions, today warned the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola.
“Even though it takes place worldwide across many sectors of the economy, and is a form of enslavement with deep historical roots, debt bondage -also known as bonded labour- is still not universally understood,” Ms. Bhoola said during the presentation of her latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council.

Currently, there is no authoritative estimate of the number of people enslaved in debt bondage globally. However, the expert pointed out to an estimate of 21 million in forced labour, according to the International Labour Organization: “This figure provides an indication of the extent of bonded labour, given the close inter-relationship between the two phenomena affecting victims of multiple forms of discrimination.”

Poverty, the lack of economic alternatives, illiteracy and the discrimination that people from minority groups suffer leave them with no other option than to take a loan or advance from employers or recruiters to meet basic needs, in exchange for their work or the work of their families.

“The poor and marginalised, those migrating, trafficked or discriminated against - including women, children, indigenous peoples, and individuals from caste affected communities- are the most impacted, entering into this form of slavery when they have nothing left to give in repayment of debts other than their physical labour,” the human rights expert noted.

People in debt bondage end up working for no wages or wages below the minimum in order to repay the debts contracted or advances received, even though the value of the work they carry out exceeds the amount of their debts. Furthermore, bonded labourers are often subjected to different forms of abuse, including long working hours, physical and psychological abuse, and violence. 

Some of the factors pushing people and families into this form of slavery include structural and systemic inequality, poverty, discrimination, and precarious labour migration. Weak or non-existent financial and other regulatory frameworks, lack of access to justice, lack of law enforcement and governance as well as corruption are some of the factors that prevent release from bonded labour and rehabilitation of individuals and families trapped in this intergenerational cycle of poverty.

In her report, Ms. Bhoola recommends that more must be done to understand debt bondage and outlines how UN Member States should take a varied approach based on universal human rights to eradicate the phenomenon.

“In order to effectively eradicate and prevent this practice, States should develop comprehensive and integrated programmes of action based upon international human rights standards, which address the needs of those affected and eliminates the root causes of such practices,” she stresses.

“Their approaches must be multifaceted and include legislative and policy measures that are effective, properly enforced and provide for protection, prevention and redress for rights violations,” the Special Rapporteur urges in her report.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full report: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/33/46

Ms. Urmila Bhoola (South Africa) assumed her mandate as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences on 2 June 2014. Ms. Bhoola is a human rights lawyer working in the Asia Pacific region on international human rights, gender equality and labour law. She has 20 years of experience as a labour and human rights lawyer in South Africa and served as a Judge of the South African Labour Court for five years. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/SRSlaveryIndex.aspx 

Watch the Special Rapporteur: https://youtu.be/rX42AOEQHWU

Download the Special Rapporteur’s video: https://we.tl/lLM7mzqu2s

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

Check the UN Slavery Convention: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/SlaveryConvention.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Eleanor Robb (+41 22 917 9800 / erobb@ohchr.org) or write to srslavery@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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