Estimates of the total number of people in forced work range from 21 to 36 million
(Adds detail to paragraph 8, fresh quotes pars 9-10)
By Tom Esslemont
LONDON, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments worldwide have no hope of combating modern day slavery unless credible data is collected on the hidden crime so victims can be identified and helped, a leading campaigner said.
Estimates of the number of people forced to work in brothels, farms, fisheries, factories and domestic service range from 21 million, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), to nearly 36 million, according to an index compiled by the Australian Walk Free Foundation.
The discrepancy points to the problem of accurately counting victims, who are often too afraid of their abusers or the police to come forward, and the lack of a universal definition of slavery which has led to questions about whether prostitution and forced marriage constitute slavery.
With the data relatively sparse, Walk Free Foundation's Global Slavery Index extrapolates from existing numbers to make calculations in what it sees as similar countries. Critics have said is methodology amounts to little more than a guesstimate.
Incomplete data leads to flawed policies and insufficient funding to deal with the problem, said Matthew Friedman, founder and CEO of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based network of private sector organisations fighting slavery.
"We tried to get (slavery) researchers around the world to compare their data. But out of 27 people, only two of them had quantitative figures to speak of," said Friedman.
"If you don't know about an issue you are not going to care about it. And if you don't care about an issue you won't do anything about it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Friedman was a speaker on Wednesday at the Trust Women conference on women's rights and trafficking run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, where he and a panel of experts called for better access to data even though it was far from accurate.
"The lack of transparency hides a multitude of sins," said Martina Vandenberg, president of the U.S.-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, during a panel discussion.
"Anti-trafficking has long been the land of anecdote rather than the land of evidence. You can refute an anecdote. But you cannot refute the data," added Vandenberg.
Friedman said he saw a role for the public to play.
"I think we need an army of ordinary people to step up and get involved. I'm talking about everyone," Friedman said in an interview before the conference, adding that last year only around one in a thousand victims received help, based on data from the U.S. State Department.
Friedman draws on his experience with the United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh and in Southeast Asia, where he came into contact with trafficking victims.
He said his team once carried out a survey on the Thai-Cambodia border, speaking to people who had been sent back to Cambodia by Thai police for breaching immigration rules.
"We found around 23 percent of them would have identified as human trafficking victims had anyone asked them," Friedman said.
Reliable victim testimony - qualitative data - was vital to a global understanding of the problem, Friedman said, because patterns were not always predictable.
"In Bangladesh everyone assumed the poorest of the poor were the most at risk of being trafficked, but when we interviewed 800 female victims we realized many of them were from the emerging middle classes," he said.
Change will only come with stronger accountability, law enforcement and the cooperation of the corporate sector because of its financial clout and its vulnerability to slave-driven supply chains, Friedman said.
"I realised that if the business world were to step up and use its own resources then we could dramatically increase the number of victims helped," he said.
"We have to begin to care about these people. They belong to the same world that we do."
(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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