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Avoiding Forced Labour

Adapted from content excerpted from Better Work, a partnership of IFC and the International Labour Organization

Forced labour is work exacted under the threat of penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. Penalties can be extreme, such as beatings, torture, sexual assault or threats of physical violence, but also can include the withholding of identity documents or wages, or threats of deportation. Other penalties may involve imposing debt on workers (e.g., through large pay advances or transportation fees) that is difficult or impossible to repay on low wages.  Forced labour violates the basic human right to work in freedom and to freely choose one’s work, and usually is unlawful under national law.


Both the vulnerability of the worker and the actions of the employer are key factors in understanding coercive behaviour that can lead to forced labour. 

Worker vulnerability. Workers who are migrants, pregnant or from ethnic minorities often are more susceptible to forced labour. Vulnerable workers may only need to be subjected to a relatively small amount of coercion in order to be forced to work against their will. However, while extreme poverty makes workers vulnerable, the lack of economic alternatives to working in a particular job does not in itself mean that there is forced labour. 

Coercion by the employer. Coercion is action taken to manipulate, deceive, and/or override a person's will. Coercion on the part of the employer indicates that workers may not have freely consented to perform the work.  Examples of coercion include restrictions on movement, threats of violence or deportation, delayed wages, and denied access to personal documents.

Bonded Labour

  • Bonded labour arises when workers can not freely terminate their employment as a result of debt owed to the employer or employment agency.  Workers can become indebted to their employer and/or a recruitment agency if they are required to pay excessive recruitment fees.  They also may become indebted to the employer if the employer provides excessive non-cash benefits (e.g., food and housing), salary advances, or other loans. 
  • To protect against bonded labour on the part of employment agencies, the employer should use only registered and licensed agencies and should review the contracts that the agency has with the workers. The ILO recommends that the employer pay the recruitment fees, not the workers. 

Forced Labour and Overtime

Coercing workers to work against their will through physical or psychological means would indicate forced labour regardless of whether the tactics are used to force workers to work during regular hours or overtime.  In a limited set of circumstances, forced labour also can arise when workers are forced to work overtime through economic coercion. Those circumstances arise when:

  • workers have to work overtime in order to earn minimum wage, and they are so vulnerable that they have no real choice but to work the overtime
  • the employer forces workers to work overtime beyond legal limits by threatening dismissal or other action that would reduce their future income (e.g., no future overtime)

Prison Labour

Prison labour is allowed if the prisoners freely consent to perform the work and the working conditions resemble those of a free labour arrangement. The employer’s obligation in this situation is to treat prison labourers and non-prison labourers equally.

Types of employer action that can lead to non-compliance

  • Preventing workers from leaving the workplace or dormitories.
  • Threatening violence against workers to make them work.
  • Threatening to deport workers or report them to the authorities in order to force them to continue to work beyond the terms of their contract or to stay on the job (particularly migrant workers).
  • Withholding wages, or denying workers access to their personal documents in order to keep them on the job.
  • Providing excessive in-kind benefits or salary advances that make workers so indebted that it is difficult for them to freely leave their jobs.
  • Failing to ensure that employment agencies do not use bonded labour.
  • Not paying workers minimum wage during regular working hours so they have no real choice but to work overtime.
  • Forcing workers to work overtime beyond legal limits by threatening with dismissal or no future overtime.

Key action points for employers

  • Ensure that all work is carried out voluntarily.
  • Do not provide excessive wage advances to workers.
  • If fees are charged to workers either directly or by recruitment agencies (including for travel or accommodation), make sure that they are appropriate, in line with market levels and do not prevent workers from leaving their jobs.
  • Put procedures in place to check the practices and policies of employment agencies.
  • If workers’ documents are kept in a secure place, ensure that workers have free access to them.
  • Ensure that workers are free to leave the worksite, subject to appropriate security, logistical or other restrictions.
  • Ensure that any non-cash benefits are valued appropriately and do not impose substantial debt on workers.
  • Do not use prison labour without guarantees that it is voluntary, and ensure that prison labourers are paid and treated the same as non-prison workers.
  • Ensure that overtime is within legal limits, and where it is not, do not compel workers to work by threatening them with dismissal or other measures to reduce their income.

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