Do’s and Dont’s for human rights related language, imagery and data

Written by Nina Haysler

Are we sometimes doing damage to the very people we want to help?

As professionals working in the human rights field, either as advisors or internally within large corporations, we need to ensure that the language, imagery, and data that we use does not harm people, but at the centre looks to protect and respect people. We understand that the human rights discipline and best practice is iterative – we are all learning, and we will all make mistakes. However, we should aim to improve our messaging and methodologies to ultimately target the protection of people.

We’ve created some helpful guidance on how to make sure that the language, imagery, and data that you use for your modern slavery statements place the protection of people front of mind. The language, imagery, and data we use does not need to sensationalise the issue of modern slavery – and should always be people-centred. This is in alignment with human rights norms that state, “human rights risk” or “modern slavery risk” refers to “risk to people” rather than “risk to your entity”.


Language shapes thoughts and action. The use of certain words can empower or disenfranchise individuals and communities.

Words like “slave” should be avoided, as it is a term that disempowers people as the identifying factor is the terrible situation that the individual has been forced into. For example, people are not “slaves” they are “enslaved”.  Preferred language to use is “survivor or victim of modern slavery.” People who have experienced more general human rights abuses can be referred as “victims or survivors” or as “affected persons” and people at risk of having their human rights abused as “potentially affected persons”. It is important to note too, that individuals may request to be referred to in a certain manner, and these requests should be respected.

“Slave master” or “slave owner” are terms that should also be avoided and replaced by “perpetrator” or “exploiter”.

There are of course, specific legal words that can be used, such as claimants and respondent. However, one should note that it is rare for survivors/victims of modern slavery to receive legal justice.


Scrolling through linked-in and industry websites, it is common to see provocative images to advertise anti-slavery services or company initiatives. For example, unsourced images of unidentified people in literal chains. “Slave-in-chain” imagery is not only disempowering to survivors/victims of modern slavery, but it is also misleading as the “modern” element in slavery indicates a lack of physical restraints required to enslave individuals. Rather the lack of freedom of movement is imposed through factors such as debts, unpaid fees, fear of retribution, restricted access to passports, and/or transport. These images could also be upsetting to communities that have experienced and continue to feel the effects of the colonial slave-trade.  

Images used to advertise anti-slavery services and company initiatives should at a minimum avoid using faces of people, indicating that they are survivors/victims of modern slavery, without their explicit consent. For best practice advice on how to select imagery, The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) Code of Conduct Good Practice Toolkit includes helpful guidance for images and messaging. The ACFID Code of Conduct includes a commitment to collect and use information ethically, and example guidance for achieving this includes, but is not limited to:

  • Do not use images or messages that manipulate the story to portray people in a pitiful way or that embellishes/exaggerates the impact of your organisation’s work.
  •  Do not create images of children where they are not adequately clothed and in poses that could be seen as sexually suggestive.
  • Where possible and appropriate, use the names of those photographed when captioning the image to give people a voice and identity.


Any data-based information, discussing tiers of exposure to modern slavery down the supply chain, should be used with a scrupulous eye. The focus should not be on estimating the “number of slaves”  within an entity’s supply chain – there is an issue with this based on the language used, how this is calculated, and what meaningful positive impact these calculations can result in.

The ILO has been open about the difficulties of measuring the number of people in modern slavery and noted that regional breakdowns are not comparable. Even the “40.3 million” number of slaves figure promulgated so widely is based on a series of assumptions.

If you are considering risk on behalf of a company/entity, take the time to understand what datasets have been used to inform specific commodity/service and country-based risk assessment and to ensure these are trustworthy robust sources, for example, the UNICEF child labour database or the ITUC Global Rights Index. It is also important to then question the underlying assumptions within these datasets. Many datasets refer to or amalgamate other sources, thus creating a loop of assumptions. Actions taken by companies, based on these risk assessments, should put people at the centre and avoid making situations worse for workers and communities on the ground. For example, ceasing supply from a high-risk country should only be used as a last resort.

Social audits are useful tools for collating data. The results of the social audits can be used to create meaningful change that has positive impacts upon workers and communities. However, even audits can have questionable quality depending on the design and methodology used, and the individual conducting the audit (and their susceptibility to corruption).

Creating anti-slavery messaging, methodologies, and collecting data is important, however, we need to be ensuring our approach is rigorous and does not harm the very people we seek to protect. First and foremost the language, imagery and data we use should not be co-opted to put profits in-front of people.


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