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On Calling Trafficking “Slavery”
May 13, 2021

The anti-trafficking movement has a history of referring to human trafficking, in its various forms, as “modern slavery.” It’s a term that has been used by advocates as well as policymakers to describe the slave-like conditions in which people can be exploited, abused, and entrapped. However, it is a controversial term with a lot of power as well as the potential to cause harm–the choice to use it (or not use it) should come with awareness of and sensitivity to its myriad effects. 

Reasons People Have Called Trafficking “Modern Slavery”

On the one hand, there are important ways in which people who experience trafficking situations are subjected to what can only be called “slavery” or “slave-like conditions.” Namely, it arises from the demand of labor (whether physical or sexual), with little to no pay, with little to no attention to needs for care, the threat of abuse, actual abuse, and an extreme lack of free will. Trafficking doesn’t always look like this (a point we’ll return to shortly), but it can and often does look like this. Using the word “slavery” is meant to acknowledge the egregiousness of what people suffer, highlight the seriousness of the crime, and justify the weight of the response to it. Systemically, it calls on us to examine how entire industries or economies have rested and do rest on forced labor, and how we may unknowingly reap collective financial benefits that remain invisible until we shine a light on it.

The Obama administration made deliberate moves to link modern slavery to the TransAtlantic slave trade in order to acknowledge the weight of the injustice and outrage. “Similarly, in its 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. Department of State also evoked the memory and symbolism of the Emancipation Proclamation to compare human trafficking to antebellum slavery and call for its eradication.” (Cheryl Nelson Butler, 2015, pgs. 1502-1505). This signifies how this kind of imagery not only guides the thinking of impassioned advocates, but also those in the highest offices.

That said….

There are several critiques of the use of this kind of terminology, and it’s important to give them due weight and attention.

On Co-Optation

Used indiscriminately, the language of “slavery” can and has been used to co-opt attention from the TransAtlantic slave trade in a way that many argue either minimalizes the horrors of African American slavery, or diverts attention away from how Blacks in America continue to suffer from the legacy, impact, and traditions of racism, abuse, and marginalization from that history. Some argue it creates moral panic about prostitution, while silencing or erasing actual slavery. It can highlight some versions of trafficking, while obscuring the other ways this traumatic experience plays out.

On the Limits of the Metaphor

As we mentioned earlier, trafficking can look like a textbook definition of slavery. However, it does not always. Relying too heavily on the imagery of shackles and chains presents two major problems:

1) “equating trafficking with slavery risks inadvertently raising the legal threshold of trafficking by creating expectations of more extreme harms than required under the law.” (Chuang, 2009) Trafficking does not need to look this extreme in order to be prosecuted as such, but without awareness of how it can manifest itself, many actionable cases can fly under the radar–or worse, the victim can be prosecuted for perceived crimes when actually they were being exploited.


2) the victim may also not identify with this imagery. Because so much of trafficking can look and feel like it involves choice, victims of trafficking may not realize they are victims if the only imagery they have as a reference to trafficking involves extreme force. Even worse, many survivors of trafficking do not wish to be thought of as having been “slaves” or “enslaved.” It can feel incredibly damaging and dehumanizing to be labeled in that way, and can be another form of harm perpetrated on survivors.


It is critical to listen to the voices of survivors, to prioritize their needs, and to prevent further harm. There can be some utility in calling trafficking “modern slavery.” But to ensure inclusivity, sensitivity, and appropriateness, a great deal of care should be used in weighing whether it’s worth using the term, or whether in fact it causes more harm. 


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