Protection from slavery and forced labour

The Human Rights Act protects your human right not to be held in slavery or servitude.

Slavery is when someone actually owns you like a piece of property.

Servitude is similar. You might live in the person’s property, work for them and be unable to leave, but they don’t officially own you.

The law also protects you from forced labour – forcing you to work under the threat of punishment that you have not agreed to accept.


Your right to be protected against slavery and servitude is absolute. It can never be restricted.

The law relating to forced labour is also absolute. But it does not apply to work that you have to do as part of a prison sentence or a community sentence. Nor does it apply to work the government requires you to do in a state of emergency. Finally, it does not include normal civic obligations, such as maintaining a building if you are a landlord or deducting taxes from your employees’ wages if you are an employer.

What the law says

Article 4: Prohibition of slavery and forced labour

1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

3. For the purpose of this Article the term "forced or compulsory labour" shall not include:

a) any work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention imposed according to the provisions of Article 5 of this Convention or during conditional release from such detention;

b) any service of a military character or, in case of conscientious
objectors in countries where they are recognised, service exacted instead of compulsory military service;

c) any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community;
d) any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations. 

Example case

Siliadin v France (2005)

A 15-year-old girl was brought to France from Togo by ‘Mrs D’, who paid for her journey but then confiscated her passport. It was agreed that the girl would work for Mrs D until she had paid back her air fare, but after a few months she was ‘lent’ to ‘Mr and Mrs B’, who forced her to work for 15 hours a day, seven days a week with no pay, no holidays, no identity documents and without her immigration status being authorised. The girl wore second-hand clothes and did not have her own room. The authorities intervened once they were alerted to the situation. However, at the time, slavery and servitude were not specifically criminalised in France. The European Court of Human Rights held that the girl had been held in servitude and that France had breached its positive obligations under the prohibition of slavery and forced labour, because French law had not afforded the girl specific and effective protection.

(Case summary taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

Last Updated: 09 Jun 2009