Prohibition of slavery and forced labour

What is slavery and forced labour?

In simple terms, slavery is a situation where one human being is owned by another. Classical slavery (ownership of persons) is prohibited by international law, yet a related phenomenon called ‘modern slavery’ still exists today. 

Modern slavery is the exploitation of a person by another person(s) for personal or commercial gain. This may take different forms, such as debt bondage, human trafficking, forced marriage, domestic servitude, sexual slavery or forced labour. 

Forced labour is a situation in which a person is coerced to perform work under the threat of punishment. Forced labour is never voluntary and always includes violence. 

[note] Forced labour is not limited to manual labour. It refers to all possible types of work or service. 

The 2022 “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery” Report states:

There are 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour on any given day. This absolute number translates to 3.5 people in forced labour for every thousand people in the world.

What is not included in the notion of forced labour?

Forced labour does not include:

  • work normally required to be done under detention 
  • any service of a military character
  • service in cases of emergency or situations threatening the life or well-being of the community
  • any work or service that is a part of normal civic obligations (e.g. compulsory jury service) 

Can slavery or forced labour be justified?

Slavery and forced labour cannot be justified. Even a state of public emergency threatening the life of the nation does not allow derogation from this right. 

Who protects this right?

As the State is the main guarantor of human rights, it must ensure that the prohibition of slavery and forced labour is observed. 

The State’s obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something).

The negative obligation requires the State to refrain from violating the prohibition of slavery and forced labour. 

The positive obligation, on the other hand, is to ensure that public authorities are not illegally discriminating and are taking active measures for protection. This includes: 

1. The adoption of appropriate laws

  • The criminal code must prohibit slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour
  • The State must regulate business activities as businesses are often used as a façade for human trafficking where victims are presented as ‘workers’
  • State immigration rules must not facilitate nor tolerate human trafficking (for example, the rules may require all passengers to show travel documents)

2. Investigation and prosecution

The State must investigate situations of forced labour or trafficking even in the absence of a complaint from the victim or if the victim has withdrawn the claim. In a case of cross-border crimes, the states concerned have a duty to cooperate.

3. Protection of victims

  • When State authorities are aware that an individual is facing a real risk of exploitation or trafficking, it must remove them from this situation
  • The State must assist victims in their physical, psychological and social recovery
  • The State must ensure that victims have access to legal assistance (counselling and representation)

International recognition of this right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 4: 

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

The prohibition of slavery and forced labour is also found in all of the most important international and regional human rights conventions.

In context


Last updated 12/05/2024