Faith leaders condemn forced labour and trafficking

By agency reporter
October 29, 2009

Representatives of international and faith-based relief organizations are emphasising that widespread public awareness is necessary in order to tackle the problems of forced labour and human trafficking.

The comments came from those attending the Council of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

‘Upholding Human Dignity: Confronting Human Trafficking,’ has been the theme of the October meeting of the LWF governing body, attended by around 165 participants at Chavannes-de-Bogis near Geneva, Switzerland.

Roger Plant, head of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour at the International Labour Organization ((ILO), called for concrete legislative measures and stricter enforcement of the existing laws of individual countries.

He pointed out that despite the great outcry against modern slavery, the existing legislative countermeasures were poorly enforced. Criminal law and labour law needed to be brought into line, he said.

According to a first ILO report in 2005, an estimated 12.3 million people throughout the world were at the time victims of forced labour, the majority of who (9.4 million) were in Asia. The human trafficking industry alone generates estimated profits of almost US $32 billion per year.

Plant urged churches to use their influence to strengthen awareness in civil society about injustice and to call upon their governments to take appropriate measures. He confined himself to problems involving labour-related exploitation. Numerically, human trafficking of women for sexual exploitation is of greater magnitude, yet it also receives greater public attention.

He suggested that apart from the more brutal and dramatic instances of human trafficking - for example, when refugees die of asphyxia in freight containers - there were many subtler forms of coercion.

According the ILO report ‘The Cost of Coercion,’ a growing number of migrant workers were entrapped into slave-like conditions, as labour brokers promising high wages lured these workers from their home countries. Once abroad, they find themselves isolated, vulnerable and helpless, unable to speak the foreign language and heavily indebted. The passport they would need for the trip back home is taken away from them. Employers and legal recruiters work hand in hand in order to deceive workers.

Low wages and poor working conditions aside, forced labour is defined by the ILO as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” This can also apply to legal work.

In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the relief organization Liberta has opened a hotline for persons seeking help. Of the 118 calls received last year, 31 were cases of human trafficking. Ismaila Faye, head of the organization, reported that a great stir was caused when they identified six cases of sexual exploitation of women who had been brought legally into the country by diplomats.

The organization sees its most urgent task as heightening awareness among the population, in particular among women and migrants, churches and relief organizations, government bodies, media, police and customs authorities.

Elena Timofticiuc, project manager for AIDRom (Ecumenical Association of Churches in Romania), highlighted the social consequences of migrant labour in Romania, often involving coercion. Families fall apart, marriages break up and children are left behind. At least one parent of the 172,000 children attending secondary school is working abroad. According to Timofticiuc, both parents of 35,000 children aged between 10 and 14 years work abroad.

The Rev Sonia Skupch of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate, Argentina, and an LWF Council member, presented a documentary film on the topic of sexual exploitation, produced by the Argentinean ecumenical relief organization for refugees and migrants, CAREF, with support from the LWF. The film’s core message is “prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world, but rather, the oldest form of abuse of women.”

Dr Fulata Lusungu Moyo, programme executive for Women in Church and Society at the World Council of Churches, focused on the exploitation of women from a biblical perspective, saying that women’s bodies were not a commodity, but God’s likeness. As a result, trafficking of women perverts the biblical and humanitarian value of hospitality into its opposite - it is the host who should afford protection and satisfy the needs of the guest, not vice-versa.

In his concluding remarks, the Lutheran World Federation General Secretary, the Rev Dr Ishmael Noko, recalled that many high-ranking church leaders, who understood work as a vocation and a blessing, were sometimes unaware of the complex reality of slavery and exploitation. Yet, examples of human trafficking could be found even in the Old Testament. He suggested that “this can encourage us to read the Bible with different eyes.”

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