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ILO seeks to raise attention on slavery

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Fishermen that were saved from slave-like working conditions sit on a bus at Phnom Penh International Airport in June after being repatriated from Malaysia. Heng Chivoan

ILO seeks to raise attention on slavery

A new global treaty from the International Labour Organization (ILO) is calling on governments to step-up their commitment to tackling modern slavery in countries like Cambodia where forced labour remains endemic.

Launched on Tuesday, the Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention reflects a consensus by the ILO that existing international mechanisms, namely the 1930 Forced Labour Convention – to which Cambodia is a signatory – are inadequate for today’s many manifestations of modern slavery.

Cambodia ranked 14th out of 167 countries in the severity of its forced labour problem in the 2014 Global Slavery Index (GSI).

The ILO and partners are campaigning for at least 50 governments to sign the new protocol, which hopes to target slavery’s root causes and private-sector sponsors, as well as to compensate its victims.

“We see forms of slavery, like trafficking, that were not a concern a few decades ago but are now huge issues,” said Sophy Fisher, of the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “This campaign is to specifically encourage countries to sign as it has to come from governments. But it is not enough to pass laws, they also have to change the views of people.”

The ILO defines modern slavery as work performed involuntarily and under coercion in any industry or informal economy, with a recent study estimating that forced labour generates annual profits of over $150 billion worldwide.

In Cambodia, more than 155,000 people, or 1 per cent of the total population, are believed to be modern slaves, and the GSI, as well as local campaigners, emphasise the need for more rigorous government action.

“There is no doubt that the Cambodian government has good laws and conventions in place, but it has not accepted its responsibility in terms of enforcement,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour department at local NGO the Community Legal Education Center.

“These agreements are also undermined by local laws which attack and criminalise workers, forcing many into conditions equivalent to modern slavery.”

While Tola noted cases of forced labour in industries like construction, in particular of children in brick factories, he said that even among garment workers, low wages and overtime act as “handcuffs” coercing workers into slavery-like conditions.

However, the Ministry of Labour claimed that it has effective tools in place to address the causes and consequences of forced labour and does not currently anticipate extending its campaign.

“We have a very strong legal definition of forced labour, which states that all work must be voluntary,” said ministry spokesman Heng Sour, who had not yet seen the new ILO protocol.

“We are trying hard to inform the public about the risks of forced labour, particularly in vulnerable sectors like agriculture and construction. Our inspections also draw in different departments in a unified and systematic approach.”

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