Forced Labor

By John Ryle 

Forced labor, like slavery, involves the deprivation of liberty, but differs from slavery in that no claim of permanent right of ownership is made over a person subject to it. International agreements put strict limits on the use of forced labor by the State and prohibit its use by non-State bodies and individuals, but they do not ban it outright.

Forced labor is a common feature of modern wars. In Burma (Myanmar), for example, conscription of civilians as unpaid labor for the military authorities is widespread. Typical duties include the construction of roads, barracks, and railways, and porterage for army contingents. Such projects often involve large-scale relocation of populations. In the worst instances, civilians from ethnic minorities in areas of rebel activity have been forced to march ahead of troops as a human shield against landmines.

In the former Yugoslavia, between 1993 and 1996, forced labor was used by all sides, but most systematically in the Serb-controlled areas of northern Bosnia, where non-Serb minorities under Bosnian Serb control were subject to a “work obligation.” Forced labor details were assigned to the front line of conflict; they were also put to work in factories and mines; the work obligation was used as a means of public humiliation for prominent members of minority ethnic groups.

All these practices involve infringements of one or other of the various international agreements that touch on the issue of forced labor. Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 applies in internal conflicts and requires humane treatment to those who do not take part in hostilities and arguably limits forced labor by imposing minimum standards on it. The Fourth Geneva Convention specifies that, in occupied territory, civilians cannot be compelled to join the armed forces of an occupying power, or to engage in certain kinds of war-related work, such as the production of munitions, and if under age eighteen they may not be forced to work at all. Civilians under military occupation, both in wars between States and, as specified in Additional Protocol II of 1977, in internal conflicts, cannot be required to work longer hours or under conditions worse than the local norm. Civilian internees in a war between States cannot be compelled to work, unless they are medical personnel (who can be required to attend fellow internees) or are employed in administrative, kitchen, civil defense, or other work on behalf of other internees. Enforced prostitution is specifically prohibited in Article 27 of the Fourth Convention.

There are detailed rules in international law for the treatment of prisoners of war set out in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. Most of the restrictions on civilian employment detailed above also apply to them; beyond this, the Geneva Conventions specify that POWs forced to work must be paid a wage, unless their work involves only the maintenance or administration of their place of detention. They cannot be forced to do degrading, unhealthy, or dangerous work. Military officers cannot be forced to work.

In order to determine whether a particular case of forced labor contravenes any or all of the international norms specified above, it will be useful to know the following. First, who is being forced to work: whether they are prisoners of war, women, under the age of eighteen or over forty-five, or members of an ethnic or other minority. Second, the nature of the work and working conditions: who the work is for, the hours and days worked, the distances from home, whether the work is war-related, whether the products are exported, and whether or not they are paid.

Forced labor is also addressed by two conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), a constituent organization of the UN. ILO Convention 29 (1930), which was an attempt to tackle the issue of forced labor in European colonies in Africa and Asia, restricts forced labor duties to able-bodied males between eighteen and forty-five, and to those whose absence “will not affect family life in the community.” Another ILO Convention (105) forbids parties from using forced labor as a punishment for expressing political views or as a means to economic development.

The applicability of the ILO Conventions in wartime is limited by the exemption they make for emergencies (including war). But they have nevertheless proved effective in drawing attention to abuses in countries where there are undeclared internal conflicts, such as Burma (which has ratified ILO Convention 29, but not Convention 105). Signatories to ILO Conventions are obliged to submit reports, which are considered by meetings of experts at the International Labor Conference. Outside bodies cannot make official representations at these meetings, but information from human rights reports may be put on the record and governments involved can be asked to respond. Some Western countries have laws banning the import of products manufactured using a conscript labor force. This constraint on trade may be the most effective sanction against many forms of forced labor.

Other international agreements that touch on the issue of forced labor include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reiterates the ban on the use of forced labor as a punishment for holding political views, as a means of economic development, or as a form of discrimination against a social group.

Related posts:

  1. Compelling Military Service