The International Labour Organization has developed a critical breakdown of common terms, noting their relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as their respective ties to legal, academic, or statistical definitions. Terminology used to describe and discuss forms of severe exploitation, including modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labor, and forced marriage are complicated and often contested.
This glossary is a useful starting point for understanding the meaning and implications of several key terms. However these terms are based on the English language and so reflect sociocultural values and political dynamics in which English is dominant, such as international law. Based on our campaigning experience around the world, especially in the Global South, it is important to remember that terms such as “human trafficking” and “modern slavery” are not always easily translatable into other languages, or approximate translations can take on different implications.
The existence of laws may give the effect of making terminology appear “more real,” but they should not be the singular reference to how we think of — or accept — definitions. Survivors, victims, and those with lived experience have widely varying degrees of identifying with certain terms. Some embrace describing themselves as “survivors of modern slavery” or a “victim of human trafficking,” while others whose experience technically constitutes trafficking under the law may not identify with any of these labels. Still, there is a certain power of language to give identity, or at least description, in giving people who face exploitation the ability to name it and define it on their own terms — no institutionalized legal interpretation can take that away from them.
Our community’s submissions to our Translating ‘Modern Slavery’ survey help us better understand how terms such as “human trafficking,” “forced labor,” “modern slavery,” etc. are discussed, framed, or translated in languages besides English. Language is complex and we recognize how local cultural contexts and linguistic nuances shape local advocacy and public understanding.
The Work in Freedom Handbook: A critical glossary of terms
With permission from the authors at the ILO, we present excerpts of their report, The Work in Freedom Handbook: A critical glossary of terms relating to freedom and unfreedom in the world of work in a digital format. All the material referenced and cited to produce this ILO report are listed here.