The Work in Freedom Handbook: A critical glossary of terms -

The Work in Freedom Handbook: A critical glossary of terms

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.


Most of us would agree that we should take action against forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) refer to eradicating forced labour and ending modern slavery and human trafficking (SDG Target 8.7). However, each one of these conceptual constructs implies a different way of seeing the world, a different history of understanding and a very different framework of action. The purpose of this critical glossary is to deconstruct some of these commonly used concepts in order to flag their blind spots, merits and other characteristics.

Each term is situated in a specific polarity between what it describes and its opposite to be desired (e.g., some type of freedom) or to be freed from (e.g., some type of unfreedom). While those polarities indicate different moral orders, this glossary does not seek to attribute a moral judgement to these taxonomies, but rather to highlight the breadth of the semantic fields they are situated in, and the contested polarities that they encapsulate or don’t.

Throughout history there have been multiple ways of describing different forms of freedoms or unfreedoms connected with work. Some taxonomies are more characteristic of certain forms of economic, social and political organization and specific periods of history. For example, serfdom is usually associated with feudal economies in the Middle Ages. Generally, these taxonomies have been changing through processes of social, economic and political contestation. The analysis of the dichotomy between labour freedoms and unfreedoms reveals the dual nature of work that oscillates between specific chores, tasks and activities, and work as a recognized social construct linked to rights and entitlements. While an individual may undertake certain concrete activities that s/he may consider work, there is no guarantee that such labour is socially recognized as labour. In that sense, labour history is a reflection of struggles to define the meaning of work.

This glossary lists terms in alphabetical order. The choice to include different terms was based on two factors: (1) the need encountered to explain terms during the implementation of the Work in Freedom programme,2 and (2) the need to highlight terms that are situated in specific spectrums of labour freedoms or unfreedoms that are rarely discussed in public narratives.


Common use
This term is commonly used in reference to unfree forms of work, including slavery, child labour, debt bondage, serfdom and the kafala system (sponsorship system). Alternative words include: “suppressing”, “eradicating”, “ending”, “eliminating” and “combatting”.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
Article 1 of the 1956 Supplementary Slavery Convention specifies that: “Each of the States Parties to this Convention shall take all practicable and necessary legislative and other measures to bring about progressively and as soon as possible the complete abolition or abandonment of the following institutions and practices…” The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) calls for the complete abolition of forced or compulsory labour and its “suppression”, including “not making use of it”. The 2015 UN General Assembly Resolution on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes Sustainable Development Goal targets referring to eradicating forced labour and ending modern slavery and human trafficking (SDG Target 8.7).

Implicit frameworks of action
Abolition implies drastic measures such as legal, criminal and developmental measures that may involve legislators, judiciary and executive authorities. It also implies that there is an institution or cultural practice to abolish, rather than a (mere) pattern of behaviour to change. Law enforcement agencies tend to play an important role in enforcing abolition policies. Development efforts tend to focus on SDG Target 8.7. Alliance 8.7 has three strategic objectives: (i) increasing collaborative action on Target 8.7, ensuring acceleration, focus and coherence; (ii) driving innovation and scaling up solutions; and (iii) providing a platform to engage in dialogue and to share knowledge and information.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations
Abusive labour is based on normative and customary practices reflecting the political economy of labour. Abolitionist laws or decrees are ineffective without multilayered laws, policies and enforcement practices of a structural nature. In the last twenty years, despite commitments to reduce modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking by a specific date, successive estimates of forced labour have tended to highlight increasing numbers, hence suggesting that programme efforts were insufficient or not based on accurate assessments of the root causes. This also suggests that solutions that question the political economy of contemporary labour are simply not considered. Recognition of the current social, political and economic challenges involved in “abolishing” forced labour tends to be lacking. Such failures can erode public trust in such proclamations, programmes and abolitionist discourses.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics
However ambitious they may appear, abolitionist statements related to labour unfreedoms have the merit of depicting a resolve to end such situations. Abolitionist statements tend to be inspired by variable understanding of social, economic and political injustice in which class plays an important role.

Bonded labour, debt bondage or peonage

Common use
Bonded labour is usually perceived as a condition in which a person works as a result of a debt that was forced upon him or her. Peonage refers to a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The 1956 Supplementary Slavery 1956 Convention specifies that debt 2011 bondage is a practice similar to slavery. It further clarifies that debt 2018 bondage, while a type of servitude, can be characterized as slavery if the characteristics of ownership are present. Debt bondage should not be confused with indebtedness. Furthermore, the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery dedicated to debt bondage in 2015 mentioned that definitions used by regional human rights courts are relevant as they have binding relevance for their member states. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH) listed nine characteristics of debt bondage.

According to the ILO’s Department of Statistics: “bonded labour is a form of forced labour in which the job or activity is associated with (i) advance payments or loans or excessive fees from recruiters and/ or employers to the worker or to a person’s family members;
(ii) a financial penalty, meaning that the terms of repayment are unspecified at the outset and/or in contravention of laws and regulations regarding the amount of interest or other repayment conditions, or the job or activity is under‐remunerated (in relation to legal regulations or the labour market); and (iii) some form of coercion until a worker or family member has repaid the loan or payment advance.”

Implicit frameworks of action
Legal systems to prevent debt bondage have existed since antiquity and were common in the Sumer, Babylonia and the Akkadian Empires. For example, the Andurārum edicts of the Akkadian Empire released bonded workers from debt peonage. In a modern context, India’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 provides a good example of the wide range of measures that are commonly intended to be used to abolish bonded labour. Most frameworks of action include:

  • Extinguishing debts related to bonded labour by law, regulation of credit, interest and debt default in connection with work (e.g., limits on debt in relation to income; auditing, investigating and identifying odious debts). The ILO sets a standard that determines a maximum for advances to workers. The Social Policy (Basic Aims and Standards) Convention, 1962 (No. 117) is concerned with reducing forms of wage payment that foster indebtedness and requires state parties to take “all practicable measures” to prevent debt bondage.
  • Prohibiting bonded labour practices or customs together with penal measures.
  • Establishment of vigilance committees at the local level to identify bonded labour and implement abolition measures.
  • Provision for rehabilitation, material relief of bonded workers and special measures for bonded workers (e.g., protections from home evictions).

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • Debt is intrinsic to how market economies work. Unless there are structural and effective measures in place to prevent odious debt accumula- tion, conditions for debt bondage tend to re-emerge, in spite of temporary relief measures.
  • The concept does not elaborate on non-debt related labour abuses.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics
This is the only concept that elaborates on the central connection between debt and labour, a structural cornerstone of a type of unfreedom that has existed over different periods of history and remains relevant today. Structural measures to prevent odious debts from occurring may have a transformational spillover effect on some other domains of unfree labour.

Fair recruitment

Common use
Fair recruitment commonly refers to recruitment practices that may be considered respectful of the rights of workers. The term “ethical” recruitment is also used.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The ILO’s 2016 General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment define recruitment as including: “the advertising, information dissemination, selection, transport, placement into employment and – for migrant workers – return to the country of origin where applicable. This applies to both jobseekers and those in an employment relationships.” There is no definition of what “fair” implies; however, the general principles and guidelines also define due diligence as: “an enterprise’s ongoing process which aims to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for how it addresses the adverse human rights impacts of its own activities or which may be directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationships”.

According to the Guidelines: “Governments bear the ultimate responsibility for advancing fair recruitment.” In addition to this, in 2019 the ILO defined “recruitment fees and related costs”.

Article 8.2 of the Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181) also refers to the need to “prevent abuses and fraudulent practices in recruitment, placement and employment in a context of international migration”.

The Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 which identifies “protecting persons, particularly migrant workers, from possible abusive and fraudulent practices during the recruitment and placement process” among the measures to be taken for the prevention of forced or compulsory labour (Article 2(d)).

Implicit frameworks of action
Convention No. 181 is meant to “allow the operation of private employment agencies as well as the protection of the workers using their services, within the framework of its provisions”. In that sense, the convention formalizes the role of private recruitment and employment agencies. While the General Principles and Operational Guidelines provide for the respect of fundamental principles and rights at work and other human rights in recruitment processes, they are non-binding and encourage due diligence, self-accountability and transparency measures regarding recruitment processes. The discourse on promoting fair recruitment is often closely linked to anti-trafficking frameworks of action that accept formal labour intermediaries but see informal ones as the main cause of human trafficking. Efforts to improve recruitment processes across different corridors of recruitment are seen as incremental steps to prevent trafficking.

The Employment Services Convention, 1948 (No. 88) reiterates the need for a system of free public employment agencies.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations
While the ILO’s general principles and guidelines on fair recruitment call for fair recruitment to “decent work”, in practice, the concept of fair or ethical recruitment risks being used in abstraction of decent work requirements. Measures taken tend to focus on transparency and hiring procedures but pay less attention to underlying working and living conditions, which also affect recruitment outcomes.

The concept of fair and ethical recruitment is often used by actors who assume that fixing recruitment practices from one location to another, one by one, comprehensively prevents human trafficking. In reality, the scale at which decent work is unavailable creates the conditions for greater intermediation needs: employers prefer to avoid accountability for working conditions by choosing intermediaries to deal with workers; and workers opt for their own intermediaries to find better employers in an environment of decent work scarcity. Workers often need such intermediaries to help them negotiate with employers and exit abusive employment relationships.

Other policies such as those promoting labour flexibility, temporary work, and ease of doing business have affected the regulatory framework of labour recruitment and increasingly enabled formal employers to delink themselves from the direct responsibility of recruiting and contracting.

Simultaneously, this has often also enabled employers to delink themselves from the responsibility of ensuring decent work and allowed recruiters, contractors or gig-sector platforms to set the working conditions of workers in a kind of bubble that is kept isolated from state regulations. In other words, labour standards tend to remain un-enforced in the field of labour intermediation, and the non-binding and privatized nature of recruitment regulation is insufficient to guarantee the application of international labour standards.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics
While the notion of “fairness” in recruitment is only indirectly mentioned, this concept is one of the few that frames a desirable outcome.

The concept visibilizes the complex nature of labour intermediation and brokerage. Transparency in the various layers of recruitment can enable workers to hold recruiters and employers accountable for poor recruitment outcomes.

Forced marriage

Common use
This concept commonly refers to customs through which women are forced into wedlock, transferred into a family or clan and/or inherited as a commodity.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
Article 16 of The Universal Declaration 1948 of Human Rights (1948) stipulates 1956 that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of 1962 the intending spouses”.

The 1956 Supplementary Slavery 1966 Convention refers to servile marriage 2006 (an institution or practice similar to
slavery) but not to forced marriage in 2017 general. Servile marriage happens when “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; or the husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or other- wise; or a woman, on the death of her husband, is liable to be inherited by another person.”

The 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages reaf- firms that: “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Preamble, Point 2).

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted in 1966 mentions that: “No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Point 3, Article 23).

The UN has not recognized that other situations in which forced marriage occurs result in a form of slavery. However, the UN Secretary-General has defined “forced marriage” in very broad terms: “A forced marriage is one lacking the free and valid consent of at least one of the parties” (UNSG 2006), an in-depth study on all forms of violence against women.

Implicit frameworks of action

  • There is legislation and policy banning the unwilling wed- lock, sale or inheritance of a woman to another family or clan.
  • The Global Slavery Index began referring to forced marriage in 2017.
  • While men may also be forced into marriage, forced marriage is more common for women and girls.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations
The practice of transferring a woman into wedlock and the payment of a dowry by a bride’s family to the bridegroom are common practices of social reproduction in many societies. In such contexts, women (and men) will tend to be socially acculturated to accept it so that it doesn’t appear to be involuntary. Even the reactions to exceptions prove that the persistence of the practice is rooted in traditional customs and social and economic organization. This often occurs among social groups attributing markedly different roles to women and men in which class hierarchies, sectarian or ethnic divides, and/or clan dynamics play an important role in social, economic and political spheres. Hence, all forms of forced marriage should not be considered tantamount to slavery. Leveraging cultural acceptance to discontinue such practices depends on long processes of social and economic reorganization, including cultural and economic international influences that cannot be changed by such abolitionist laws or policies alone. In fact, policy positions that assume such measures to be sufficient can polarize traditional majoritarian resentment and produce opposite outcomes.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • The concept has served as a key reference to mobilize support for women’s right to choose whether and whom they marry. As such it represents a break- through for women’s rights movements in many countries.
  • The concept indirectly visibilizes systemic unpaid and involuntary women’s work in the context of households or other social groups.
  • Situations of fake marriages resulting from trafficking or forced sex work are also brought out by this concept.

Forced labor

Common use
The concept focuses on the lack of consent and the use of force or threat over an individual worker in relation to his or her work.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The concept has an internationally agreed upon legal definition: “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” (Forced Labour Convention, 1929 (No. 29)). The Convention lists five exceptions, including work related to military service, convict labour under a public authority, work exacted in cases of national emergencies, and direct communal services.

Convention No. 105 further prohibits forced labour as a means of political education or punishment for political views, mobilizing the labour force for economic development, labour discipline, punishment for participating in strikes, and racial, social, national, or religious discrimination. In many countries, forced labour is framed from a bonded-labour lens.

The ILO has established forced labour indicators which include abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions, excessive overtime.

Implicit frameworks of action

Control, force and coercion are central to forced labour.

The framework of action to address forced labour differs between a specific focus on addressing individual cases and broader measures defined more recently. The Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention and the Forced Labour Supplementary Measures Recommendation, 2014 (No. 203) highlights the series of measures that can be taken to address forced labour. They include multiple prevention measures, such as those that tackle root causes, several protection measures and remedies, specific action against trafficking in persons for forced labour, other effective measures, implementation, consultation and international cooperation.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • The term assumes that abuses cannot happen with individual consent. By zeroing in on the narrow dichotomy of forced and voluntary labour, the concept in itself glosses over variable and systemic factors behind labour abuses.
  • The notion that better alternative employment choices exist, other than those in which forced labour tends to occur, is not always true. In such cases, the concept of consent is less meaningful. In such situations, a contract may appear to demonstrate consent, even if the worker doesn’t have a choice.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • Compared to some other concepts of unfree labour, the definition of forced labour is rather unequivocal.
  • Convention No. 29 is widely ratified, and as of April 2021, the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour has been ratified by 51 countries since it was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2014.
  • The ILO recognizes that the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour is one of the fundamental principles and rights at work; and that such principles require integrated action involving all other principles in order to be addressed (e.g., the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention). This is a tacit acknowledgment that forced labour is part of a continuum of other unacceptable forms of work.

Trafficking in persons

Common use
In public discourse, the concept refers to deception involving the movement of a person for the purpose of exploitation. In practice, some criminal-justice practitioners tend to differentiate labour trafficking from sex trafficking, and trafficking in persons for other criminal purposes. There is no definition of labour trafficking, sex trafficking or any other type of trafficking in persons for criminal purposes.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The commonly called “Palermo Trafficking Protocol” defines trafficking as 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.” The Protocol further adds that the consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation is irrelevant where any of the means listed above have been used, or when it involves children under eighteen years of age.

The ILO’s Operational Indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings (ILO 2009), based on a Delphi methodology, provide guidelines on how to identify individual victims of trafficking. However, in 2012, the ILO developed forced-labour indicators which are applicable in trafficking-in-person contexts (entry on Forced Labour).

Implicit frameworks of action

  • Frameworks of action are usually referred to as the four Ps: prevention, prosecution, protection and partnerships. They focus on informing the general public and risk groups about trafficking in persons, prosecuting labour recruiters and employers perceived to be involved in deception, protecting victims, and fostering partner- ships. Since trafficking is considered a form of organized crime, partnerships tend to involve cooperation between the police, border officials and civil- society organizations.
  • Criminal-justice perspectives tend to see labour as one of many purposes of human trafficking, such as trafficking for organ use, surrogacy, militancy, etc.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • While exploitation is not defined, the concept of trafficking tacitly overemphasizes the labour intermediation and migratory dimension (migration within countries included).
  • The trafficking-in-persons framework fails to take into account that workers won’t enjoy decent work unless their fundamental labour rights are respected. It empowers security-sector authorities, which tend to see collective action of workers as a law-and-order issue, but not as a situation arising from systemic labour abuses. They will see informal labour intermediation as a crime even when it can also offer escape from unfree forms of labour.
  • Criminal-justice perspectives tend to crowd-out the significance of labour in all forms of human trafficking.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • The victim’s consent to exploitation when force or deception is used is immaterial for establishing a trafficking-in-persons case (for prosecution).
  • The concept visibilizes the situation of migrant workers who play an increasingly important role in modern econo- mies.
  • Although the concept does not address background conditions of distress, its focus on the migratory dimension and the fact that a victim’s consent is not needed if the listed means are used visibilizes how distress migration can lead migrants to accept abusive working and living conditions out of desperation.

Modern slavery

Common use
In public discourse, the concept refers to extreme, egregious current situations reminiscent of chattel slavery in today’s context.

International legal, statistical or academic definition

Although “modern slavery” has no legally agreed upon international definition, there were earlier international instruments addressing slavery, such as the 1926 Slavery Convention, which include a definition of slavery (see below the heading for slavery). However, the notion of what is “modern” about today’s slavery is not defined. Instead, it is sometimes argued that the term is an umbrella term covering a set of specific legal concepts with a common element.

Implicit frameworks of action

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and more specifically SDG Target 8.7, refers to “modern slavery”.

The concept refers to such an infamous past that its occurrence today calls for a swift criminal-justice response, rather than a response based on a labour or human-rights frame- work. Perpetrators are seen as slavers, who should be treated as criminals, and subjects as “victims” or “survivors”, who deserve compassion. The concept implies “extreme exploitation”, which tends to go beyond the realm of labour legislation.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • The concept remains uncertain and vague in the absence of an international legal definition.
  • Most individual stakeholders involved or complicit in systemic labour abuses will tend to claim that the concept is too distant or extreme to apply to themselves.
  • The concept calls for criminal-justice responses that overshadow rights-based approaches.
  • The notion of modernity opens more questions than it answers and as such blurs understanding.
  • The connotation towards sale and buying of a person as a commodity, which defines classic slavery, rarely occurs in a direct manner in existing labour relations and is unlikely to be extensively used in current legal regimes.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • The concept recognizes an asymmetrical power relationship of domination.
  • When referring to “modernity” the concept tacitly suggests (while leaving it undefined) that there are new forms of control over people’s labour freedoms needing regulation or punishment.

Sex work

Common use
The concept refers to adult work related to the provision of sexual services or products in exchange for material compensation.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The term is highly contested, and hence it does not have an international legal definition. While some countries have made sex work legal, other countries criminalize clients of sex workers, while others criminalize it as prostitution. The concept of sex work generally refers to a type of consensual adult occupation involving the provision of sexual services for material compensation. Children’s involvement in sex work tends to be universally proscribed.

It is important to highlight that people engaged in providing sexual services for material compensation prefer to describe their work as “sex work”, rather than other pejorative terms such as “prostitution”. See: Language Matters: Talking about sex work (NSWP 2013).

Implicit frameworks of action
The juxtaposition of the term “sex” with “work” implies a labour framework of accountability. In a policy brief “Sex Work as Work”, NSWP lays out elements of a Decent Sex Work Agenda, which includes fundamental principles and rights at work and other specific points, such as the decriminalization of all aspects of sex work; fair labour practices in line with existing labour laws; clean and safe working environment; access to condoms and personal protective equipment; access to voluntary, non-stigmatizing and comprehensive health services; freedom from violence and sexual harassment; the right to choose work arrangements; the right to social protections and benefits which are the right of all employees; access to statutory complaint mechanisms to address contraventions of employment standards legislation; the right to refuse services; the right to access health and social services free from stigma and discrimination; freedom from discrimination by other employers, landlords, or judges in family court due to current or prior involvement in sex work, and several other points.

Note that social networks accessed through sex work may enable cross-class relationships and hence be perceived as a threat to traditional and modern forms of social reproduction and gender roles, particularly of higher-income groups. This may partly explain the historically contested nature of the concept.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • In many countries, the provision of sexual services in exchange for material compensation is prohibited, considered a crime and highly stigmatized. In such cases, sex work is not recognized as work, and being associated with it undermines the social capital of sex workers. In such cases, sex workers tend to remain invisible.
  • Sex work may include violence and health hazards – conditions that, admittedly, may also exist in other legal occupational sectors.
  • Just as non-consensual work can exist in other occupations, there are situations when sex work is also non-consensual. At one end of the spectrum this includes trafficking and forced labour, while at the other end, it may arguably include “survival sex work”. However, in such cases it is unclear how the lack of alternatives that is implicit in the term “survival” is different from the lack of alternatives among agricultural workers, construction workers, domestic workers, etc. – conditions of work which may also involve sexual harassment.
  • Some see sex as an intimate relationship that should not be commodified. This argument, however, does not take into ac- count the fact that all work involves some form of compensation and hence commodified transaction. It also does not account for the right of agency of those involved in sex work, or the possibility that some sex workers may not have economic alternatives.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • The association of sexual activities with work removes the criminal connotation that is common in countries that have criminalized “prostitution”.
  • The concept removes traditional stigma associated with prostitution and removes obstacles to realization of their rights as human beings, especially against discrimination.
  • The concept allows sex workers to avail labour rights in their struggles against work-related abuses. Other terms such as “prostitution” that tend to deny a legal work relationship ipso facto deprive sex workers from labour rights and put them at risk.
  • The concept implies that a sex worker enjoys the freedom and agency to use her or his body as she or he wishes.
  • In comparison with other terms, the term “sex work” is the preferred term used by sex workers themselves to describe their work. This, however, does not necessarily mean that they are all willing to publicly present themselves as sex workers, given the stigma associated with it and the social consequences such publicity may entail.

Survivor (of human trafficking, modern slavery)

Common use
This term has been in use primarily by some feminist groups dealing with gender survivors of domestic abuse/violence or sexual violence and rape. It has also been used by anti-prostitution campaigners for some time, referring both to women and girls who had been trafficked into “prostitution” and to others who had been in sex work without being forced or trafficked. Today, it is increasingly common among advocacy groups advocating for abolition of modern slavery. The term “victim” has also been used in the context of trafficking in persons, although it is increasingly discontinued in favour of the term “survivor”.

International legal, statistical or academic definition
The term “survivor” has no definition in international law. However, some governments that have adopted laws related to modern slavery do refer to “survivors”.

Implicit frameworks of action
This term tends to direct policy and programme efforts towards protection and rehabilitation of survivors of modern slavery. The Freedom Fund and some North American organizations have also tried to organize survivors of trafficking.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has used trafficking and modern slavery interchangeably, recently set up an International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council.

Drawbacks, blind spots and limitations

  • The concept only leaves space for the protection and rehabilitation of “survivors” for having been the subject of extreme and egregious situations similar to slavery. Experience of regular abuses hardly qualifies one as a “survivor”, even if such abuses are integral elements of unfree work (e.g., harassment, non-payment of wages, etc.).
  • One is only entitled to specific protections after having been subjected to human trafficking or slave-like situations. One can hardly enjoy such protections ex ante.

Strengths and visibilizing characteristics

  • In comparison with other analogous terms that are used, such as “runaway” or “absconder”, the term “survivor” doesn’t place any stigma on the subject.
  • Women’s rights groups working on anti-trafficking agendas have preferred to refer to “survivors” rather than “victims” to encourage action that enables the trafficked women to get back their belief in themselves, their strength and power and move on from “victimhood”.
  • The term implies the need for some type of victim compensation and non-criminalization for illegal acts committed when trafficked.