Using data to ask better questions on modern slavery

With the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK government has increased its activities and advocacy on tackling modern slavery including forced labour and trafficking.

News | 19 March 2017
Due to the growing number of victims of forced labour, human trafficking, and modern slavery, statisticians face challenges in reaching and measuring victims who are predominantly in marginalised communities.

On the occasion of the 48th Session of the UN Statistical Commission, a special technical meeting entitled “Measuring the prevalence of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking: The latest approaches” was convened by the Government of the United Kingdom, the International Labour Organization (ILO), UN University (UNU) and UN Office for Drugs and crime (UNODC) to discuss the use of indicators in the measurement and prevention of the aforementioned activities.

Not only did participating officials highlight and describe the prevalence of this phenomenon in depth from both a national (namely UK and US) and global perspective, but the participants also raised awareness of current tools and initiatives that exist within the prevention framework.

In regard to the problem of measuring the scale of modern slavery, Neil Jackson, Chief Statistician of the UK Department for International Development (DfID), and Oxford Professor Bernard Silverman, who is also the department’s chief scientific adviser, assured that the department had some idea of how many victims of modern slavery exist in the UK.

In 2013, it was reported that the UK is home to 13,000 slaves, but the Home Office went further and stated that the number is four times higher than previously projected (a new estimate is based on a statistical analysis by Professor Silverman). “Modern slavery is very deeply hidden, so it is a great challenge to assess its scale,” Professor Silverman said.

Ms. Michaëlle de Cock, Chief Statistician for the Fundamental Rights at Work Branch of the ILO reported that since 2002 the global estimate of forced labour, especially child labour, has increased annually. In 2002, the global estimate of victims of forced and bonded labour was 5.7 million and in 2012, a new ILO global estimate of forced labour was 20.9 million victims, 5.5 million of whom are children.

Ms. de Cock’s further spoke about the challenges in developing survey tools when “victims are hard to see, and even harder to count”. She further described the typology of forced labour which can take many forms such as imposed by state authorities, by private agents for sexual and labour exploitation, or individual household employment.

James Cockayne, Head of the New York Office of the UN University (UNU), from a historical context in U.S.A. described how the country’s founders, both pro- and anti-slavery, had a fundamental problem in 1787: whether to count their slaves. Mr. Cockayne explained that this was fundamentally important in political history because one side did not want to count them, whereas the other side did.

He spoke about the Three-Fifths compromise place in the U.S. constitution, a foundational document of a fledgling country. “The impact of the result contributed to the lead-up to the Civil War, leading to centuries of the worst productivity, crimes rates, and lost GDP. This active exclusion was politically important,” Mr. Cockayne explained.

He later stated that officials will not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) as long as there are groups of people in forced labour or slave-like conditions. “How can you have effective policies if you do not even know how many victims there are?” Mr. Cockayne stated. Therefore, he asserted that the need to provide tools for member states to measure is mainly a resourcing question. Mr. Cockayne believes that states must consider both the human rights and developmental aspects of this issue.

In regard to the use of big data, Mr. Cockayne stated that the kind of data that is needed depends on its use. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that more data means better answers. We use data to help us ask better questions and foster conversations.”

While the global presence and, social and economic effects of forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery, some participants spoke about on-going initiatives and tools within the prevention policy framework. Regarding modern slavery, Ms. Olivia Hesketh of the UK Home Office stated that before collecting slavery data, policymakers and analysts must ask: What forms of slavery do they take? How do they look in the national context?

She stated that modern slavery data is collected by different agencies that cover different units of measurements – such as victims, offenders, or offenses – over different time periods. Her research and data collection looks at these sources to provide better insight into the nature of modern slavery.

One of the types of data available is the National Referral Mechanism data, published quarterly, which collects data on age, gender, exploitation type, country of origin, location of exploitation, and referring agency. The other type is the Duty to Notify data, published annually, which the data collection was mandated by the Modern Slavery Act of 2015.

In September of 2016, 1,289 modern slavery crimes were recorded by the police. However, as Ms. Hesketh reminded participants, “Numbers and quantitative data can only tell us so much, and we need to more qualitative data.”

Ms. Angela Me of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pointed to sustainable development goals’ Indicator 16.2.2 in developing methodologies and data sources to build prevention mechanisms. Ms. Me listed reasons why such cases often go under reported, including shame, stigma, and drug use. She mentioned that UNODC published a Global Report on trafficking in persons in 2016 which found the criminalization of human trafficking on the rise.

Other older international instruments are found within the ILO’s legal institutional framework, such as the 1930 Forced Labour Convention (No.29). The ILO has also worked on building the foundations for measurements of forced labour since 2002, which include qualitative research on forced and bonded labour, surveys on forced and bonded labour of adults, and research to identify the mechanism of recruitment and coercion imposed upon children.

One survey Ms. de Cock highlighted is the 2008 ILO-EC Delphi survey, in which researchers were able to reach a consensus on indicators of trafficking. She spoke about guidelines for implementing national surveys that require ethical rules, operational definitions, adaptation of indicators to national/local context and laws, training, type of survey and sampling, questionnaires, and analysis.

The ILO has conducted more than 20 pilot surveys for measuring forced labour, and the cost efficiencies determine the type of surveys being used. The types include national household surveys (such as the Labour Force Survey and the National Child Labour Survey), sectoral and localized surveys as well as specific target groups such as migrant worker/returned migrants, bonded labourers, domestic workers, and fisherman.

The ILO was asked to develop better forced labour surveys by resolution of the 2013 Nineteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians (see page 66) which states that it “Recommends that the Office [ILO] set up a working group with the aim of sharing best practices on forced labour surveys in order to encourage further such surveys in more countries.”

The final presenter, Sara Crowe of Polaris, stated that information gaps are largely due to obstacles in both data collection and data sharing. Polaris is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on wide ranging trafficking survey that includes 45,000 victims from 132 nationalities, along with 31,000 potential trafficking situations.

The meeting ended with an open-ended discussion that addressed other issues, such as the value of big data and policy on supply chains. Ms. de Cock announced that the ILO will be publishing a report later in 2017 on the economics of forced labour as well as contributing to new estimates on child labour and forced labour under the auspices of Alliance 8.7.