Definitions: human trafficking & sex work

The United Nations (UN) trafficking protocol definition for Human Trafficking includes

“the recruitment, transportation, harboring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.”

UN Trafficking Protocol

To be considered human trafficking, an event must include an ACT, MEANS, and PURPOSE.


Abuse of power / position
Giving / taking payment for control of individuals
Threat of loved ones
Sexual exploitation
Forced labour
Slavery or similar practices
Removal of organs
Various ways Act, Means, and Purpose show up in human trafficking processes

Canada has adopted the UN definition of human trafficking into its Criminal Code. However, the way the Criminal Code defines exploitation creates limitations for those who experience exploitation.

For trafficking offenses, the Criminal Code states that a person exploits another person if they:

“Cause someone to provide, or offer to provide, labour or a service by engaging in conduct that, in all the circumstances, could reasonably be expected to cause the other person to believe that their safety or the safety of a person known to them would be threatened if they failed to provide, or offer to provide, the labour or service.”

Canada’s Criminal Code section 279.04

If a person’s safety must be threatened, those experiencing exploitation through other forms of coercion (ex. the threat of job loss, financial security, withholding of passports/work permits) are not protected under this law.

It is essential that service providers are aware of legal definitions, their limitations, and their implications. Service providers should work to prioritize youth care despite legal limitations and recognize the various ways exploitation occurs regardless of legal definitions.

Domestic Human Trafficking: when all stages (act/means/purpose) occur within Canada, no matter what the legal status of the person experiencing trafficking.

International Human Trafficking: if any of the stages occur outside of Canada.

Sexual exploitation: a non-consensual act or acts committed through abuse or exploitation of another person’s sexuality for the purpose of sexual gratification, financial gain, personal benefit or advantage, or any other non-legitimate purpose.

Sex work: An umbrella term which includes the consensual provision of sexual services in exchange of money or goods; is considered income-generating. Sex work may include stripping, dancing, camming, escorting, erotic massage, and sex acts. Sex work is an exchange between consenting persons, where choice, autonomy, and personal agency are present.

Sex workers include a diverse range of people, varying in gender, race, history, socio-economic positions, abilities, and age, and occupying a diversity of spaces. Sex work and sex workers have been historically foundational to Canada’s town-building and cultural tourism. Read more about sex work and the history of Toronto here.

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