President’s commentary: Canada's shameful refusal to ratify the ILO convention on forced labour | National Union of Public and General Employees

President’s commentary: Canada's shameful refusal to ratify the ILO convention on forced labour

(18 June 2009) - Canada has a shameful secret, says NUPGE president James Clancy. It is one of only nine countries in the world that have failed to ratify the International Labour Organization's Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour.

By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

I’m sure the great majority of Canadians would be shocked and appalled to know that Canada is only one of nine countries in the world that have failed to ratify an international convention on forced labour that has been in existence for almost 80 years.

Sadly, that is the case. Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour was adopted at the annual conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1930. Canada helped develop the convention and voted for its adoption.
Now, as this historic convention is about to celebrate its 80th anniversary, Canada still refuses to ratify it and fails to give any rational reason for its refusal to do so.

Convention No. 29 is one of eight ‘core’ conventions that the ILO has identified as the basis on which all other workers' rights can be built. The ILO considers these conventions necessary conditions for the improvement of individual and collective rights at work. Follow the link below to find out more about the eight core ILO conventions recognized as being fundamental to the rights of human beings at work.

Convention No. 29 is not a controversial document. It prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labour, which the ILO defines as "all work or service exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered voluntarily." 

Exceptions are provided

Exceptions are provided such as work required by compulsory military service, normal civic obligations or as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law. The convention also requires that the illegal extraction of forced or compulsory labour be punishable as a penal offence, and that relevant penalties imposed by law are adequate and strictly enforced.

So why hasn’t Canada ratified Convention No. 29? The answer is not clear to me. Over the last decade I’ve posed this question to the minister of labour and/or the minister’s officials on at least three occasions and the answers I get are somewhat obscure and difficult to understand.

In 1959 Canada ratified the more stringent ILO Convention No. 105 – Abolition of Forced Labour, which prohibits forced or compulsory labour as a means of political coercion. Yet 50 years later it is still unable, or unwilling, to ratify the more general Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour.

At one point, the Canadian government expressed concern that Canada would not be compliant because the Ontario government contracted to a private company to operate a prison in Penetanguishene. This prison privatization experiment is the only example of private prisons in Canada, and it has been shown to be a dismal failure.

When the contract ended in November 2006, the management of the prison returned to the public sector and the correctional officers employed there are now once again public employees, members of NUPGE’s Ontario Component, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE). So it’s reasonable to assume that this concern no longer applies.

Another excuse

The latest reason we’re being told for not ratifying Convention No. 29 is a ‘possible technical inconsistency’ centred around the fact that a private sector firm has been contracted to manage the kitchen facilities in one of Canada’s correctional facilities, despite the inmate supervision still being the responsibility of public correctional officers.  We have been told by the ILO that it has given the Canadian government an opinion that this does not represent a technical violation of the convention.

The fact of the matter is there is no credible excuse for Canada not to ratify ILO Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour. This is a national embarrassment for Canada.

With only nine countries in the world left to ratify this convention, the ILO is placing a major push on those nine countries to ratify Convention No. 29 by the year 2010 – the convention’s 80th anniversary. This would make the Forced Labour Convention the first universally ratified ILO convention.

Join with us and do your part to help end Canada’s shameful secret and ensure that we are not isolated from the world community with respect to our failure to ratify the ILO Convention on Forced Labour. Write the federal minister of labour, the Honourable Rona Ambrose, urging her to take immediate measures to have Canada ratify ILO Convention No. 29 by no later than June 2010.

With thanks,



James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the national president of the 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE


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