By Guy Ryder, Special for CNN
Editor’s Note: Guy Ryder is the Director-General of the International Labour Organization. This week it is launching The Work in Freedom program, an initiative funded by the UK Department for International Development which aims to help 100,000 women and girls from Bangladesh, India and Nepal who are in forced labor in countries including Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and India.
Across the planet, about one in every seven of us lives in extreme poverty, having to survive on less than $1.25 a day. Every day, they and the millions more living just above the poverty line struggle to have enough to eat, and dream of a better life and of earning enough to provide for their families.
Geeta Devi was one of these people. The 32 year-old mother of two from Nepal had been struggling to support her children and, like millions before her, made the difficult decision to leave her family behind in search of better work. Geeta, whose real name is being withheld to protect her safety, left her home believing she had secured a job through a local recruitment agency to work in a hospital in Lebanon.
When she arrived in Beirut, the man who collected her at the airport told her that she would actually be employed as a domestic worker in his house.
Geeta had used her meager savings to travel abroad and now had no money to fly home. And so she was forced to accept the job. What followed was an all too familiar story of exploitation – no wages, physical and psychological abuse, loss of contact with family and restriction of movement.
The sad thing is that Geeta’s case is not an exception. It is a situation faced by millions of women and girls from southern Asia who migrate with hope, only to find themselves far from home, behind closed household or factory doors in often horrific conditions.
Across the world, there are 21 million forced laborers, and more than half of them are women and girls. They are trapped in work under unimaginable conditions, into which they were coerced or deceived and from which they cannot escape.
The emotional and physical impact on the individuals is terrible. And there is an economic dimension too: we estimate that victims of forced labor are being denied at least $21 billion of income a year and this is money that could be lifting families and entire communities out of poverty.
I find it unacceptable that such slavery-like conditions can exist anywhere in the world today.
There are several factors involved, from deception by unscrupulous labor recruiters to exploitation at the hands of employers in the destination region or country. Migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable because they are highly dependent on their employers, and because private homes are often excluded from labor market regulations and labor inspection.
But with political will and innovative, comprehensive solutions, we can tackle modern-day slavery. For starters, we need strict punishment of those who benefit from exploitation. We also need strong preventive measures.
Women at risk of exploitation need educational support and training on rights and skills, to improve their ability to access or create local employment opportunities, or allow them to choose to migrate as well-informed, skilled workers with higher income-earning potential.
But even well-prepared migration can go wrong, if laws and policies fail to protect workers’ rights.
That's why we also need to strengthen labor legislation with gender-sensitive laws and policies and agreements between countries which protect the rights of migrant workers, especially women.
One important measure is to extend the coverage of labor law to domestic workers, a measure that has already been taken by some countries such as Jordan.
The ILO's Domestic Worker Convention No. 189 will enter into force in September this year. It has already created a new momentum for stronger legislative action. The recognition of domestic work should also be reflected in bilateral and multilateral migration agreements.
And the recruitment industry needs to be better regulated at the national and international levels. There is a need to review current legislation and assess the scope for criminal prosecution and administrative sanctions against abusive recruitment practices.
Finally, we need to reduce poverty and improve people's chances of finding decent work in their own countries. At the same time, migration is a reality of our globalized economy. And if we don't want it to turn into a nightmare of trafficking, debt, exploitation and violence, we need to make it safe so that people – and women in particular – can work in freedom everywhere.