The definition on forced labour has been settled since the International Labour Organisation (ILO) passed the ILO Forced Labour Convention (No. 29) in 1930. According to this convention, forced or compulsory labour is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” It thus consists of three elements. The first is a work or service, which may include all forms of work, service and employment in all sectors (formal and informal), but excludes compulsory education or training. The second is that the work is performed under the menace of a penalty. Menace of penalty refers to all forms of penal sanctions, but also various forms of physical and psychological coercion or the retention of identity papers. The third is involuntariness, meaning the lack of “the free and informed consent of a worker to take a job and his or her freedom to leave at any time.” Compulsory military service, normal civic obligations, prison labour (under certain conditions), work in emergency situations and minor communal services within a community are exempted from qualification as forced labour. This definition has been reaffirmed in the ILO Protocol 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention 1930.

The purpose of constructing a definition of forced labour in elements of forced labour, rather than listing prohibited forms of labour, is to enable practitioners and supervisory bodies of the ILO to address a wide range of forced labour practices. As expressed in a 2012 General Survey of the ILO, this definition encompasses “traditional practices of forced labour, such as vestiges of slavery or slave-like practices, and various forms of debt bondage, as well as new forms of forced labour that have emerged in recent decades, such as human trafficking.” Nowadays, forced labour is also called modern slavery, as to “shed light on working and living conditions contrary to human dignity.”

In 1957, the ILO also adopted the ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention No. 105, which specifically addresses the abolition of forced labour imposed by state authorities, prohibiting forced labour as a punishment for the expression of political views, for the purposes of economic development, as a means of labour discipline, as a punishment for participation in strikes and as a means of racial, religious or other discrimination. Both Forced Labour Conventions (No. 29 and 105) enjoy near universal ratification. Forced labour has subsequently been declared a fundamental labour right in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Moreover, to not be subjected to forced labour is considered a fundamental human right, as reflected in the prohibition of slavery and forced or compulsory labour in article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This point of view is further reflected in the United Nations Global Compact, where forced labour is mentioned as one of the Ten Principles, and is also referred to in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The responsibility for companies to contribute to the elimination of forced labour too has been included in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

In addition to the ILO Forced Labour Conventions No. 29 and No. 105, forced labour has been prohibited in a vast number of multilateral conventions. Within the ILO, forced labour is included in the definition of the worst forms of child labour in theWorst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), and therefore is subject to measures taken by member states to ensure its prohibition and elimination as a matter of urgency. 

In 1926, the League of Nations concluded the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery (the Slavery Convention), which in article 5 discusses the conditions which need be present to prevent cases of forced labour to become analogous to conditions of slavery.  As decided in the 1953 Protocol amending the Slavery Convention, the United Nations now continue the duties and functions of the Slavery Convention. The Slavery Convention and its 1953 Protocol were augmented in 1956 with the passing of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practiced Similar to Slavery, intended to intensify the measures taken to eradicate slavery practices globally.

A number of conventions of the United Nations dedicated to the elimination of human trafficking and protection of migration also refer to the protection of vulnerable people, such as migrants, against forced labour. In 1950 the United Nations passed the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. In 1990 the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICPMW) was enacted by the United Nations, which refers to the work of the ILO on the topic of forced labour in the preamble, and states in article 11 that no migrant worker or member of his or her family shall be required to perform forced labour or held in servitude. In 2000, two Protocols supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime were enacted: the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children

In regional context, forced labour has been prohibited in article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 6 of the Inter American Convention on Human Rights. Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights prohibits all forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery and slave trade inter alia. 


Codes of Conduct addressing Forced Labour