UNITED NATIONS - About 21 million people are victims of forced labour across the world, trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave, according to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for the largest number of forced labourers in the world - 11.7 million (56 per cent) of the global total, followed by Africa at 3.7 million (18 per cent) and Latin America with 1.8 million victims (9 per cent), the report said.

The head of the Geneva-based ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, Beate Andrees, says that the methodology has been revised and improved since the ILO’s initial estimate in 2005 and the numbers are more robust now. “We have come a long way over the last seven years since we first put an estimate on how many people were forced into labour or services across the world. We have also made good progress ensuring most countries now have legislation which criminalises forced labour, human trafficking and slavery-like practices”.

Forced labour in numbers

Three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are in forced labour today.

About 18.7 million (90 %) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises. Of these, 4.5 million (22 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million (68 per cent) are victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing.

About 2.2 million (10%) are in state-imposed forms of forced labour, for example in prisons, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces. About 3 of every 1,000 people on the globe are victims of forced labour, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization, a UN agency. That adds up to nearly 21 million people worldwide, a dramatically higher number than the group estimated seven years ago.

Forced labour includes any situation in which someone is forced to work against their will. Because it is a hidden practice, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many people are victimized.

The new number is roughly 70% higher than the last estimate from the international group, in 2005. That doesn’t mean that forced labour has increased; instead the ILO said it had a new, more sophisticated way to estimate the scale of the problem, extrapolating its numbers from reported incidents and data.

The new global study also sheds more light on how forced labour happens around the world. It found that most victims of forced labour are exploited by private companies or people, while a 10th of forced labourers are abused by governments or rebels.

Forced labour occurs most commonly in central and southeastern Europe and Africa, though the total number of people forced to work in Asia is higher than in any other region, the report says.

And though millions of people are coerced into prostitution or other sexual exploitation, more than three times as many people are forced to work in other industries, such as agriculture or construction, it says.

“This really reinforces the notion that most forced labour happens in the making of products we consume every day,” said David Batstone, president of the anti-slavery group Not For Sale. And with the new, higher number, “it’s more difficult for anyone to say it’s just a minor problem.”