Tomoya Obokata is the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.
For some, work forms a central part of our identity, a source not only of income but also of meaning and economic well-being. For many members of minority communities, indigenous peoples, migrants and other marginalized communities, however, the opposite is often true – poorly paid, exploitative wage labour, servitude and slavery may trap these groups in poverty, perpetuate negative stereotypes and compromise their dignity on a daily basis, sometimes over generations.
This report, showcasing experiences regarding conditions of work and employment from around the world, demonstrates just how complex the barriers can be to equitable employment and access to decent work. Today, in fact, over 40 million people in all regions of the world are still enslaved in undignified working conditions. Tragically, contemporary forms of slavery are a global crime that, despite distinct manifestations depending on the country and region, are nevertheless characterized by the dehumanization of its victims through forced labour and other forms of coercion.
There are other forms of work-related human rights violations, too, such as the loss of traditional livelihoods suffered by indigenous communities evicted from their lands, that also deprive those affected of their opportunity to access decent employment. Each case requires a specific and urgent response, a fact that has been underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic and its many unequal impacts on minorities, indigenous peoples and other groups in vulnerable situations.
So what can be done to support fairer labour markets and by extension more inclusive societies as a whole in order to prevent contemporary forms of slavery and other exploitative practices? Legal reform, while important, is not enough on its own to resolve these challenges: in most countries, equality is enshrined in law, even if it is not observed in practice. It is also necessary to address the social prejudice, lack of access to services and political invisibility that underpin work discrimination and exclusion.
The moral responsibility for ensuring decent, inclusive, equitable and safe work for all lies primarily with governments, businesses and dominant populations who may benefit to varying degrees from keeping things as they are, not as they should be from a human rights perspective. Yet, as documented in these pages, minorities and indigenous peoples are themselves driving much needed progress through their advocacy and activism, whether by mobilizing action through trade unions or by engaging in reskilling and adult education to access opportunities in emerging sectors such as the digital economy. These and other inspiring initiatives demonstrate that there are alternatives to the exclusion and injustice that so often characterize work and employment.
To return to my opening point – work defines us, both as individuals and as societies. Ensuring everyone can work in secure, safe and humane conditions, with reasonable hours and adequate pay, is a prerequisite for accessing many other rights and protections. The rollback of even basic safety nets, the increasingly precarious nature of employment in sectors such as the gig economy, are developments that ring alarm bells. The abuses highlighted in this volume, though frequently distressing, are also a call to action to work together to bring an end to exploitation in the workplace.
Photo: A portrait of Tomoya Obokata.