Loading content

Framing modern slavery

Research project on effectively communicating to improve the public’s understanding of modern slavery in the UK.

Published: 9th July 2024

This is a report and a messaging guide on effective ways to communicate modern slavery to the British public based on the research aimed at improving the communication of modern slavery in the UK. It was conducted by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) in close collaboration with the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which commissioned the project.


There is evidence suggesting that a large part of the British public have a relatively narrow view of modern slavery, why it's happening, where it's happening and who’s involved. This view shapes perspectives on what should be done about modern slavery, which tend to focus on punishing the perpetrators and supporting those at risk to better avoid exploitation, whilst leaving out how systemic drivers create the conditions that cultivate and sustain exploitation. There is also growing evidence that language used to describe modern slavery is not accepted by some people with lived experience.

The project aimed to identify frames and narratives that would be more effective in increasing the understanding of modern slavery by the British public, enabling a more evidence-based and survivor-informed public debate, and develop language in collaboration with survivors that resonates with survivors of modern slavery in the UK.


The project first carried out a desk-based research to gain an understanding of public perceptions of modern slavery and issues around framing of modern slavery in the public debate. It then organised a workshop with people with lived experience to identify what they want the public to understand about modern slavery and what language should be used. The project developed messages and tested them in three focus groups with members of the British public, led by a research company (Survation). It then brought back experts by experience together to gather their views on the messages and the questions raised by the focus groups.

Key findings

Drama triangle dominates the narrative on modern slavery – and masks the complexity of it

Modern slavery is often framed in a way that evokes the relationships in the so-called drama triangle, in which the government (the hero) is cracking down on the villains (evil gangs of people smugglers) who are kidnapping the victims of (women from overseas) who are being sexually exploited. The government (the heroes) are doing their best to rescue these ‘slaves’ (victims). The drama triangle masks the breadth and complexity of modern slavery.

The public have a broader understanding of modern slavery but the drama triangle shapes the primary associations.

On the whole, the British public’s understanding of modern slavery is somewhat broader and more nuanced than the common media narrative outlined above. However, the dominant associations do tend to align with the media narratives, that while modern slavery happens in the UK, it primarily affects people trafficked to this country by gangs into exploitation behind closed doors.

Outlining how specific policies increase the risk of exploitation can help reduce the blame placed on individuals

Outlining how policy choices made by government create conditions that put people at risk can shift the emphasis towards the structural drivers of modern slavery and set up a conversation around how policy change is part of the solution. The more specific the messages were about both the policy problem and the policy solution, the more receptive the public were to the message. However, a great deal of emphasis by the public was still placed on the characteristics of ‘vulnerable’ individuals and the need for them to change; to ‘be more educated’ and ‘to know what to look out’ for.

Dominant narratives around immigration and crime shape understandings and attitudes to modern slavery

By far the most powerful narrative that seemed to block or get in the way of shifting blame away from survivors was if they are ‘an illegal migrant’. Even if the public were sympathetic to how ‘desperate’ their situation was and how much they disagreed with the government’s immigration or labour policies, some expressed that people were ‘complicit’ with their exploitation because they broke the law either entering or once in the UK.

Evoking empathy can help shift public attitudes towards modern slavery

The research suggests that using shared values and simple, relatable language to evoke empathy with people experiencing trafficking can be used to disrupt or temporarily dislodge the blocking narrative around ‘illegal migration’. For example, a message that opened with the shared value of “No matter who you are or where you're from, wanting to guarantee the health and well-being of your family is as ordinary as breathing” before asking the public to “imagine if you worked non-stop and still couldn't afford to send your child to school or get your mum the medical help she needs”, was well received by the focus groups, shifting blame away from survivors, as it built empathy for people whose circumstances necessitated making some very difficult choices.

The term ‘victim’ evokes pity - not empathy - amongst the public and is disempowering for people with lived experience

The terms used to describe people who’ve experienced exploitation seemed to have an effect on the empathy the public felt towards survivors and their attitudes towards their role in tackling modern slavery. Amongst the public, ‘victim’ evoked sympathy rather than empathy, whereas ‘survivor’ evoked respect for the individual's strength and resilience. ‘Person with lived experience’ elicited that such a person had a role in leading change. This correlated with the preferences of people with lived experience who found the term ‘victim’ disempowering and warned that the term ‘survivor’ can be gendered and associated with particular forms of exploitation (particularly sexual exploitation) and an obligation to share traumatic stories.

Modern slavery is not a neutral frame

It is important to hold in mind that ‘modern slavery’ is in itself a frame, a metaphor likening multiple contemporary forms of exploitation to the transatlantic slave trade and triggering an association with the commonly used drama triangle.

This frame has been used by the government since before the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in order to cast itself in a particular light and in doing so helped to obscure a more complex picture of the issue, including the impact of a “hostile environment” for migrants, which put people at greater risk of exploitation.

Communicators seeking to fill the gaps around the public's understanding of modern slavery must be mindful of this and act accordingly. This may not mean abandoning the term modern slavery altogether, but it does mean understanding that it is not a neutral frame.

Frame graphic

Views of people with lived experience

When asked about what they wanted the public to know about modern slavery, people with lived experience who took part in the project identified several key themes:

  • That’s it’s happening now in the UK
  • That it’s not only happening to migrants or people of colour
  • That it’s not the survivors’ fault that it happened to them.

When asked which public perceptions identified in earlier phase of the project they wanted to challenge, reinforce or strengthen, the most common responses were to:

  • Challenge - that it has to do with who you are – for example your age or level of education or migration status;
  • Reinforce - that modern slavery is the removal of choice, freedom and control over their lives;
  • Strengthen - That recovery takes a lifetime and that people shouldn’t be put in harm's way again.

Describing people with lived experience

  • The term ‘person with lived experience’ was generally preferred to ‘survivor’ and both were preferable to victim. Some also preferred ‘controlled person’
  • Generally using the terms slave, slave labour and to some extent modern slavery were disliked
  • The term ‘exploitation’ was generally preferred e.g. ‘child exploitation’ rather than ‘child labour’.

Control over personal stories

In the conversation about using the stories of people with lived experience, the overwhelming view was that people with lived experience should have control over their own story including but not limited to how it’s told, what it’s used for, where it appears, how long it’s in the public domain and how long it takes to write and sign off.

Key gaps in public perceptions of modern slavery

The majority of the public believe human rights should be protected and are concerned about modern slavery. However, the research identified several key gaps in the public’ understanding of modern slavery in the UK, its causes and solutions.

  • The public perception is that modern slavery doesn’t happen much in the UK and when it does, it happens to foreign nationals, contrary to evidence showing thousands of people are affected, with UK nationals amongst most affected.
  • The public commonly associate modern slavery with trafficking women into sexual exploitation and to a lesser extent with forced labour, with National Referral Statistics pointing to men as the most affected and labour exploitation as the most common form of exploitation.
  • Alongside age and gender, the public tend to believe other individual characteristics such as ‘being uneducated’ and ‘having low self-confidence’ puts people at greater risk. To a lesser extent, they also recognise social conditions such as poverty and homelessness as factors - these inform the perception that people make a ‘calculated risk’ to enter modern slavery.
  • The public also believes that the Government should do more to tackle modern slavery, including through cracking down on organised crime or ban imported goods made with forced labour. However, there is very little connection in the public perception to structural drivers shaped by government policies and business practices that perpetuate modern slavery.
D Irections

Key recommendations

The full set of recommendations for practitioners to use in order to increase the understanding of modern slavery amongst the British public are included in the messaging guide.

1. Open with a shared value of the importance of everyone being free or safe to pursue a better life for themselves and their loved ones

Modern slavery is not an issue the majority of the public are actively engaged with. Therefore, most will be reading or hearing about the issue passively and will tend to tap into their emotions and pre-existing beliefs to make sense of it. In this context, the emotionless, procedural language sometimes is unlikely to connect and therefore improve understanding.

One way to help bridge an issue that feels remote for most people, is opening your message with a shared value as a way to speak to people’s emotions and build affinity. Start your message with the universality of either security values like safety or self-direction values such as freedom and opportunity.

2. Where possible, name the specific form of exploitation rather than the umbrella term of modern slavery, alongside its prevalence and who is affected

To avoid reinforcing narrow associations of the drama triangle and instead broaden the public’s understanding of modern slavery, it’s good to name a specific type of exploitation, who it affects, and its prevalence in the UK. For example, one can talk about forced labour and the thousands of men from the UK and overseas paid little or nothing in our factories, shops and fields. Or criminal exploitation and how the vast majority of young people forced to move drugs across the country are British.

People with lived experience stressed that the thread that draws every form of modern slavery together is exploitation and preferred the use of the term over modern slavery.

3. Explain the structural drivers of exploitation and make it clear that they are institutional choices

The public has a tendency to focus on an individual’s personal characteristics making them vulnerable to modern slavery, rather than the broader social determinants and structural drivers of exploitation.

People with lived experience of modern slavery explained that these determinants and drivers should be framed as putting individuals ‘at risk’ of exploitation, rather than describing them as ‘vulnerable people’. Calling someone a vulnerable person is making it part of their identity, whereas saying someone is ‘put at risk’ emphasises the environmental factors at play.

Framing policies as a choice made by decision-makers is important as it helps people understand that there are other options, that modern slavery is not inevitable, and that a different policy choice could stifle, rather than enable, exploitation. One way to help explain this relationship is to say how the policy ‘sets up’ conditions which enable or put people at risk of exploitation.

4. Spell out specific, proportionate solutions

Structural drivers and solutions can be brought to mind by outlining how specific policy changes can help to reduce harm. In focus groups, solutions that were too broad and vague such as ‘needing a schooling system that ensures every child gets the support they need’ tended to be met with either ambivalence or fatalism.

Conversely, messages with clear specific solutions, especially around regulation and enforcement of welfare and labour policies, were well received on the basis that ‘it's more positive and feels like it's advocating change’ and ‘outline solutions to the treatment people are facing’. It’s good to couple a short-term solution with a longer-term solution which feels proportionate to the problem, whilst still feeling provisionally feasible.

5. Evoke respect and empathy, not pity and sympathy

In our focus groups, referring to those who’d experienced modern slavery as ‘victims’ was met with pity and sympathy, which also elicited an element of culpability, either because the individual was unaware of the risks or had put themselves in harm's way. In contrast, using the term ‘survivor’ or phrase ‘person with lived experience’ tended to evoke more respectful and empathic responses. For some, ‘person with lived experience’ also elicited a leadership role, as ‘someone who could advise what to look for’.

People with lived experience stated a clear preference for using the phrase ‘person with lived experience’ over disempowering terms like ‘victim’ or ‘slave’, with the term survivor less clear cut, but still preferable over ‘victim’.

6. Ensure people with lived experience are in control of their stories

Using personal narratives told by those with lived experience should be underpinned by the principles of being non-exploitative, trauma-informed, and preventing harm.

People with lived experience made it clear that they should always stay in full control of their stories, including what is told and not told, how long the story takes to write, when the story is shared, how long the story is shared for, and what it gets used for.