In the context of this report, modern slavery covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, other slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.
Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term that focuses attention on commonalities across these legal concepts. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power. For example, their identity documents might be taken away if they are in a foreign country, they may experience threats or actual violence, or their family might be threatened.
Countries use varying terminology to describe modern slavery, including the term slavery itself, as well as other concepts such as human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale or exploitation of children. These terms are defined in various international agreements and treaties, which many countries have voluntarily signed onto and ratified into law. The following are the key definitions most governments have agreed to, thereby committing to prohibit through their national laws and policies:
Human trafficking is defined in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol as involving three steps.
Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons;
by means of 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;
with the intent of exploiting that person through: prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery (or similar practices), servitude, and removal of organs.
The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve threat, use of force, or coercion.
Forced labour is defined in the International Labour Organization Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No.29) as “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.” The ILO conventions C29 and C105 list precise exceptions under which labour can be imposed by state authorities.
State-imposed forced labour
State-imposed forced labour refers to forced labour imposed by state authorities, including involuntary labour exacted by government officials, as means of:
political coercion, education, or as a punishment for expressing political views;
punishment for participating in non-violent strikes;
mobilising labour for the purpose of economic development;
enforcing labour discipline; or
discrimination based on race, social status, nationality, or religion.
While some circumstances may justify a state's ability to impose compulsory work on citizens for specific tasks — for example, to perform civic or military obligations or to enforce penal sanctions — the scope of this ability is limited by conditions set in international conventions such as ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105). Imposing compulsory labour outside of these limitations may result in an activity being regarded as state-imposed forced labour.
Forced commercial sexual exploitation
Forced commercial sexual exploitation refers to forced labour imposed by private agents for commercial sexual exploitation and all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including the use, procuring, or offering of children for the production of child sexual abuse material.
Slavery and slavery-like practices
Slavery is defined in the 1956 Slavery Convention as the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. In a later treaty, states agreed that there are also certain “slavery-like practices”: debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children (including in armed conflict), and descent-based slavery.
Debt bondage is a status or condition where one person has pledged their labour or service (or that of someone under their control) in circumstances where the fair value of that labour or service is not reasonably applied to reducing the debt or length of debt, or the length and nature of the service is not limited or defined.
Forced or servile marriage
The following are defined as practices “similar to slavery” in the 1956 Slavery Convention. Any institution or practice whereby:
a woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group;
the husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or
a woman who, on the death of her husband, is liable to be inherited by another person.
Child marriages, as a form of forced marriages, also fall within the definition of practices “similar to slavery” pursuant to the 1956 Slavery Convention. Child marriages refer to any marriage or union where at least one party is under the age of 18. These marriages are considered to be a form of forced marriage as at least one spouse cannot express full, free, and informed consent, pursuant to a joint general declaration published in 2019 by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Despite these, in many countries, children aged 16 and 17 are able to marry in exceptional circumstances provided they have judicial and/or parental consent.
Worst forms of child labour
Drawing on the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), the term “worst forms of child labour” for the purpose of these estimates is comprised of:
all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;
the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography, or for pornographic performances;
the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties.