Definitions: Human Trafficking, forced Labour and slavery

The Accountability Hub looks at accountability for exploitation in supply chains that either alone or together with other factors, constitutes human trafficking, forced labour and slavery.  Sometimes these forms of severe exploitation are collectively called ‘modern slavery’. Each of these terms has a definition under international law, though individual countries may use different definitions.

Human trafficking

The international legal definition of human trafficking or ‘trafficking in persons’ is found in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the “UN Human Trafficking Protocol”). It requires states to criminalise human trafficking, to take steps to prevent and prosecute traffickers and to protect victims.

Article 3(a). “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Human trafficking is a crime that is focussed on the process of bringing a person into or holding them in a situation of severe exploitation. Human trafficking occurs in almost every country in the world and in many different labour sectors. It can involve the movement of victims from one country or to a series of countries, or it can occur wholly within a country or even within a town or city.

Forced labour

Forced or compulsory labour is defined in the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29):

Article 2(1)… forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.

Labour is the provision of any work or service, not just manual labour. Forced labour therefore covers a wide range of work, from forced work in factories and on farms, to forced prostitution or forced begging, and can include both legal and illegal activities.

The “menace of any penalty” may mean physical violence or restraint, but it can also be of a psychological nature, such as threats to denounce victims to the police or immigration authorities when their employment status is illegal.

Even where the person enters work on a seemingly “voluntary” basis, that “voluntary offer” may be the result of deception or a situation in which a person has no real alternative, which removes the voluntariness.  Its also important to note that even in cases where an employment relationship was originally voluntary, subsequent coercion or restriction on leaving a job, including withholding of wages, can be considered forced labour.


The Slavery Convention 1926 defines slavery as follows:

Article 1. … Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

In most countries of the world legal “ownership” of a person is no longer possible.  Therefore the key element of slavery is the victim being treated as if they were owned (e.g. being bought, sold, locked up, required to work without pay) in a way that deprives them of their freedom.