Modern Slavery Terminology

Many terms and phrases used in the anti-slavery fight sound similar, but there are some important differences. We have created this short guide to help you understand the differences between common phrases you will encounter here and with other anti-trafficking organizations.

Modern Slavery Terminology


There is no single globally agreed definition of modern slavery, but most definitions are adapted from the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. Modern slavery is an umbrella term that encompasses crimes of human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced child labor, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation. 

Modern slavery is an umbrella term that encompasses crimes of human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced child labor, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation.

Although not defined by law, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

Types of Trafficking and Slavery

Human Trafficking and Trafficking in Persons


Contrary to modern slavery, trafficking in persons, or human trafficking, is a legal term. It is defined by the Palermo Protocol, which defines it 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.”

It includes sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or removal of organs. Because children are not able to consent to work, it also includes exploitation of children, even if that exploitation does not meet the above criteria.

To qualify as an incident of trafficking, a case must include an act (recruitment, transport, transfer, etc.), a means (coercion, threat, deception), and a purpose (sexual exploitation, forced labor, etc.).

Forced Labor


Forced labor is defined by the International Labor Organization as “work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” There are 11 indicators of forced labor– abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, witholding of wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime.

Child Labor


The term “child labor” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. Not all work done by children should be considered child labor or child trafficking or slavery. Generally, only the worst forms of child labor, including hazardous work, excessive working hours, work targeted at girls, young children, or children with special vulnerabilities is considered as an urgent need by the ILO.

Prevalence vs. Incidence



Many anti-slavery and anti-trafficking organizations use the word “prevalence” to describe the proportion of a population that is in conditions of slavery or has been trafficked. It can be presented as either a ratio or a count. It helps us to understand how many people are in these conditions over time, and can be used to help us understand which solutions are actually working– and which ones are not working– to end modern slavery. Prevalence is different than incidence, however, and it is important to understand how.



As opposed to prevalence, incidence is the rate of new cases of slavery or trafficking within a given time period. Incidence helps us to understand how much the problem is growing within a given place and during a specific timeframe. This helps to understand where the biggest need is and helps to guide programming and policy decisions.

Our work fighting modern slavery

GFEMS invests in sectors and geographies across the world where we can have the highest potential for impact. Learn more about our work and partnerships: