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What is modern slavery

Modern slavery is an umbrella term used for practices in which people are controlled and exploited in situations they can't escape. However, legal definitions are more complicated.

Published: 16th October 2020

Modern slavery is an umbrella term for practices in which people are controlled and exploited in situations they can't escape because of threats, violence, or someone taking advantage of their vulnerability.

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act (MSA) defines modern slavery as including the offences of slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour, and human trafficking. To this could be added forced marriage (which is included in the global estimates of modern slavery produced by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation), as well as serfdom, debt bondage, and servile marriage (recognised as practices similar to slavery by the United Nations).

These practices each have their own distinct legal definition. However, these can overlap, are open to different interpretations, and can be combined in different ways. This makes it difficult to compare estimates of prevalence. There are also complexities in differentiating modern slavery from other forms of exploitation, particularly child labour. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are notable in this regard: under SDG 8 (Decent Work) modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour (and other forms of exploitation) are listed together under target 8.7, but the benchmark for child labour remains distinct from modern slavery and human trafficking.

In our communications, we refer to modern slavery in line with the umbrella-style definition used in the MSA – i.e. covering a range of different offences and types of severe exploitation, but also including forced marriage, and other institutions and practices similar to slavery. This provides conceptual clarity, remains consistent with legal frameworks, and allows us to discuss the related set of practices we seek to address succinctly. However, we make no assumption that this definition should be accepted uncritically or should be adopted by others, nor do we suggest that each of these practices constitutes slavery per se. On the contrary, we note that due to the novelty, complexity and national specificity of legal and policy frameworks, usage of the term ‘modern slavery’ will always raise questions about definitions. It is therefore vital that when referring to or using the term ‘modern slavery’, there is transparency and precision about which forms and types of exploitation are included and excluded.