What is exploitation?

Exploitation is a complex form of abuse in which someone seeks to benefit from mistreating others.

Exploitation is often a gradual process. The victim is slowly introduced to new ideas, behaviours and activities, making these appear normal and acceptable. Because of this, victims will often not recognise that they are being exploited until their situation becomes very serious.

Exploitation can take many forms, and these are often interlinked. For example, someone who is being forced to sell illegal drugs may also be a victim of human trafficking if they are forced to travel to towns and cities to sell drugs against their will.

The diagram below illustrates the many elements which exploitation can involve.


  • Common forms of exploitation

    Criminal exploitation – being forced to engage in criminal activities. These can include illegally transporting or selling items (such as drugs), engaging in acquisitive crime or forcing someone else to become involved in exploitation.

    Debt bondage – present in many forms of exploitation and can arise from ‘debts’ incurred during exploitation (including for transport or accommodation).  The person is forced to work or perform favours to pay off the debt.

    Drug trafficking – being forced to transport drugs to areas where they can be sold and distributed. This can involve county lines activity (where drug gangs transport drugs to towns and cities along ‘deal lines’).

    Financial exploitation –  being deceived or coerced into handing over monetary funds or assets to others. This can happen through scams, fraud, blackmail, or through developing debts.

    Labour exploitation – being forced to work for little or no pay, often in poor conditions. People experiencing labour exploitation may have limited freedom and may be forced to live with other workers.

    Radicalisation – the process through which people come to support increasingly extreme political, religious or other ideals. This can lead them to support violent extremism and terrorism.

    Sexual exploitation – a form of sexual abuse where people are encouraged, manipulated or forced to participate in sexual acts in order to receive something such as gifts, money or affection.

    Slavery – exercising control or ownership over another person and using this power to exploit them. Slavery can include human trafficking, enslavement, domestic servitude and forced labour. 

    County lines, financial exploitation, radicalisation, sexual exploitation and slavery are major concerns in Devon. You can find out more about these forms of exploitation here.

  • Characteristics of exploitation

    All forms of exploitation include the following characteristics:

    • they can affect any child, young person or adult, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity or sexuality
    • they can be perpetrated by individuals or groups – perpetrators usually hold power over the victim, for example because of their age, gender, intellect, status or wealth
    • they can involve force, control, coercion and intimidation, often accompanied by violence or the threat of violence
    • they can involve grooming
    • they can involve people being forced to take part in the exploitation of others
    • they can involve people being forced to engage in criminal activity
    • they are still exploitation even if the activity appears consensual – the victim’s vulnerability and the situation’s exploitative nature mean people lack freedom and capacity to make their own decisions
    • this is also know as ‘control and coercion’.

    Other important points:

    • experiencing one form of exploitation increases someone’s vulnerability to other forms of exploitation
    • people can become involved in exploitation very quickly and without apparent warning
    • people may not realise they are being exploited or understand the risks accompanying their involvement in an exploitative situation
    • people may feel trapped in the situation or feel too scared to tell others about their experiences.

    Exploitation is sometimes viewed as the victim’s fault, or it is assumed that victims have consented to their involvement. These views are unhelpful as they do not recognise the complex elements of control and coercion which accompany exploitation. People involved in exploitative situations must always be considered victims and offered appropriate support.

  • What exploitation might look like in your local area

    Forms of exploitation and signs that it is happening can vary greatly between different areas. This is often because of differences in the demographics of vulnerable groups and in the amount, and type, of places where exploitation can easily take place.

    It is useful to ask yourself what exploitation may look like in your local area:

    • which groups of people are most vulnerable to exploitation?
    • where are they likely to live, work and socialise?
    • how might they be targeted by people seeking to exploit them?
    • are there any potential exploitation ‘hotspots’? – including places with limited surveillance or a transient population (for example holiday housing, isolated public spaces, train stations or bus stops)
    • considering the above, what signs of exploitation might you come across?
    • and how might these vary between different population groups and locations?

    It is helpful to keep these questions in mind and to be alert for signs that someone is being exploited, or that an area is being used for exploitation.