According to Oxford Living dictionaries, the term exploitation has two meanings.

  1. Treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.
  2. The action of making use of and benefiting from resources.

When we say “exploitation of labour” or “workforce”, which definition is usually intended? Can it be used for the second meaning? And can the second definition be also negative?

4 Answers 4


.In the realm of music management and contracts, the word 'exploit' is used in a positive context regularly. Recently, a friend I assist signed his first record deal. The contract detailed the percentage the label would receive in exchange for the exclusive right to exploit the master recording. Both parties signed and agreed that it was in the best interest of everyone that the label exploit the recording to the best of their ability. So, in this scenario, exploitation is encouraged


The right to explore and exploit natural resources freely Sovereignty Over Natural Resources: Balancing Rights and Duties Nico Schrijver - 2008 - ‎Law

(Try any google search with resources after exploit- you will have to qualify resources, e.g. as natural, economic, etc. if using google search with search term in quotes.)

When it's resources, connotation is neutral.

Apple factories accused of exploiting Chinese workers


When 'exploit' is followed by any human or community, it's critical. (Try any google search with workers, people following 'exploit(ing)'.)

Exploit 'human resources', though truly of the former type, is stylistically too close to the latter for the comfort of less-perspicacious audiences (i.e. most of them ;)


According to etymonline.com

exploitation (n.)

1803, "productive working" of something, a positive word among those who used it first, though regarded as a Gallicism, from French exploitation, noun of action from exploiter (see exploit (v.)). Bad sense developed 1830s-50s, in part from influence of French socialist writings (especially Saint Simon), also perhaps influenced by use of the word in U.S. anti-slavery writing; and exploitation was hurled in insult at activities it once had crowned as praise.

When we say “exploitation of labor” or “workforce”, which definition is usually intended?

Definition of utilizing resources which might be human or material should be implied.

  • You should mention your source.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 1, 2017 at 8:09
  • @Mari-LouA: Word itself is hyperlinked.
    – Rahul
    Oct 1, 2017 at 8:10
  • I'm only saving you grief from experienced users who will point out the same issue :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 1, 2017 at 8:12
  • 2
    I can't say actually see an answer here. Simply citing an etymology doesn't tell you the current use or current connotations. Oct 1, 2017 at 11:10
  • *Can't say I actually see an answer here Oct 1, 2017 at 13:34

Exploitation is almost always negative when talking about people, property, or anything substantial. Even though 'take advantage of' is synonymous it's better to 'take advantage of' and opportunity than to 'exploit' it. It suggests unfairness, underhandedness, and immorality.

  • 1
    I am new to ELL. Could you please clarify for me when it is okay to answer without providing a source or reference, please Nope? I understood that some sort of citation was always necessary. With thanks.
    – Livrecache
    Oct 1, 2017 at 5:39
  • Hi Livrecache. Broadly, an Answer must have supporting references unless it's self evident; otherwise use a Comment. Oct 2, 2017 at 17:37
  • Exploitation avoids having only a negative meaning because there is the option to use exploitative behaviour. Otherwise it depends on the context. Oct 15, 2017 at 19:50

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