Section 7. Worker Rights
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by children. It also criminalizes the practice of slavery, which includes forced labor and child labor, and imposes penalties, both on government officials who do not take action in response to reported cases and on those who benefit from contracting forced labor. The constitution and the Law on the Criminalization of Slavery and Punishing Slave Practices makes the offense “a crime against humanity.” The antislavery law grants civil society organizations the right to file complaints in court on behalf of victims as civil parties; however, many civil society organizations reported difficulty in filing complaints on behalf of victims. The law also provides free legal assistance for victims and refers to their right to compensation. Although the government continues to take some actions towards ending the practice of slavery, including increased engagement with civil society groups after the change of administration, efforts to enforce the antislavery law were considered inadequate.
Tadamoun, the government agency charged with combating the “vestiges” of slavery, received 750 million ouguiyas ($21 million) of public funding to underwrite infrastructure and educational programs to improve opportunities, primarily for the benefit of the Haratine community. Some national and international NGOs accused Tadamoun of corrupt practices, of not effectively targeting its funding to the Haratine community, and of doing little to facilitate the prosecution of slavery cases in the country.
On November 28, President Ghazouani announced the creation of a new institution to replace Tadamoun and intensify government efforts to combat slavery and address the social and economic conditions that have left many citizens vulnerable to forced labor. The General Delegation for National Solidarity and the Fight against Exclusion, or Taazour, has a larger budget, a broader mandate, and greater authorities than Tadamoun, with its head holding the rank of minister and reporting directly to the presidency. With a budget of 20 billion ouguiyas ($55 million) over the next five years, Taazour is mandated to implement projects designed to improve living conditions and provide skills to members of historically marginalized communities. The institution has the authority to coordinate projects of other government agencies in order to maximize their impact. Taazour retains Tadamoun’s prior authority to file criminal cases on behalf of victims of forced labor or exploitation.
Other than Tadamoun/Taazour, the only entities that can legally file criminal cases on behalf of former slaves are registered human rights associations that have been legally operating for five years. The government continued to prevent the registration of certain antislavery organizations and associations that work for the promotion and protection of the Haratine community; these include former slave groups that would have been able to submit complaints once their five-year probationary period had expired.
The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), one of the most active organizations fighting slavery in the country, has been prevented from registering since its creation in 2008. The government’s previous refusal to register IRA and other human rights NGOs who could have helped to file complaints on behalf of slavery victims was a contributing factor to the underutilization of the three Specialized Antislavery Courts.
In October the Nema Antislavery Court convicted five individuals across three separate cases of practicing slavery in violation of the 2007 antislavery law. The perpetrators, who are believed to reside in northern Mali, were convicted in absentia, with warrants issued for their rendition and arrest. The victims were each granted five million ouguiyas ($140,000) in financial compensation as well as provided with civil registration documents, and the convicted perpetrators were sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison.
In March 2018 the Nouadhibou Antislavery Court adjudicated its first two slavery cases by convicting and sentencing three slaveholders. A woman was convicted of enslaving three sisters in Nouadhibou and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The woman was released two months later due to her age and health. In April 2018 the Nouakchott Antislavery Court sentenced two defendants in two separate cases to one year in prison and a fine of 25,275 ouguiyas ($702) for the crimes of libel and slavery. The third case, in which the defendant was accused of slavery, was postponed pending a decision of the Nouakchott appeals court. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case and closed the file.
Slavery and slavery-like practices, which typically flowed from ancestral master-slave relationships and involved both adults and children, continued throughout the year. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves does not exist, local and international experts agreed hereditary slavery and slavery-like conditions continued to affect a substantial portion of the population in both rural and urban settings. Enslaved persons suffered from traditional chattel slavery, including forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. Human rights groups reported that masters coerced persons in slavery and slave-like relationships to deny to human rights activists that such exploitative relationships existed.
In 2015 the government asked the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a program to assess the scope of forced labor in the country. Among other activities, the Bridge Project supports research in the country on recruitment mechanisms and employment conditions to help identify different types of employment that may involve slavery or slavery-like practices. In January the Ministry of Labor accelerated work on the Bridge Project after several months of delay and was on schedule to complete the project in September 2020.
Former slaves and their descendants remained in a dependent status vis-a-vis their former slave masters due to a variety of factors, to include cultural tradition, a lack of marketable skills, poverty, and persistent drought. Some former slaves and descendants of slaves were forced to revert to a de facto slave status by working for their former masters in exchange for some combination of lodging, food, and medical care. Some former slaves reportedly continued to work for their former masters or others under exploitative conditions to retain access to land that they traditionally farmed. Although the law provides for distribution of land to the landless, including to former slaves, authorities rarely enforced the law.
Former slaves in subservient circumstances were also vulnerable to mistreatment. Women with children faced particular difficulties. Because they were particularly vulnerable and lacked the resources to live independently from their former masters, they could be compelled to remain in a condition of servitude, performing domestic duties, tending fields, or herding animals without remuneration.
Some former slaves were coerced into continuing to work for their former masters, who relied on adherence to religious teachings and a fear of divine punishment to keep these individuals enslaved. Former slaves were often subjected to social discrimination and limited to performing manual labor in markets, ports, and airports.
Slavery, forced labor, and de facto slavery were more prevalent in areas where educational levels were generally low or a barter economy still prevailed, and prevalent to a lesser degree in urban centers, including Nouakchott. The practices commonly occurred where there was a need for workers to herd livestock, tend fields, and do other manual or household labor. Nevertheless, such practices also occurred in urban centers where young children, often girls, were retained as unpaid domestic servants (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.