It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data

Friday, 26 October 2018 15:10 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Andrew Wallis is the CEO of anti-slavery charity Unseen which also runs the UK’s Modern Slavery Helpline. Dr Ella Cockbain is a researcher at University College London and focuses on serious and organised crime and its prevention, particularly human trafficking, labour exploitation and child sexual exploitation.

If we are brutally honest, a senior police officer said to one of us recently, we know very little about modern slavery in the UK: what’s going on, who’s involved, when, where and how it’s happening and why.

Beyond policing, a similar picture emerges of anecdotal evidence driving policy, limited and isolated datasets and scattergun responses. Against a background of funding cuts and overstretched resources, an evidence-informed approach is all the more necessary if the UK is to deliver on its commitments to tackling modern slavery.

The first question people often ask is how big a problem modern slavery really is. The simple answer is that nobody really knows. ‘Modern slavery’ is a relatively recent coinage that encompasses human trafficking, forced and compulsory labour and various other forms of exploitation.

It is a notoriously tricky concept with unclear legal and empirical boundaries. Many argue that the extremes of modern slavery are better seen as part of a broader continuum of precarity and exploitation in the globalised marketplace.

Despite these very real fuzzy boundary problems, the 2018 Global Slavery Index boldly proclaimed that 40.6 million people are enslaved worldwide. Dig a little deeper into these headline-grabbing statistics and their shaky foundations soon become apparent: questionable extrapolations are based on secretive and ‘highly suspect’ methods, dubious assumptions and little hard data. The index producers suggest there are 136,000 modern slaves in the UK, a far cry from the government’s official estimate of 10,000-13,000.

Although the approach used to reach the latter figure is sensible and transparent, the figures themselves are now dated and often taken out of context. The analysis was based on 2013 data limited to human trafficking but the passing of the Modern Slavery Act has seen a broadening in domain focus and increases in awareness, prioritisation and enforcement have translated into steep year-on-year increases in the number of suspected victims identified in the UK.

The estimate of 10,000-13,000 victims is now widely considered just the tip of the iceberg but few agree about the size of the iceberg that lies beneath it.

The Global Slavery Index famously has its roots in Bill Gates telling Australian billionaire philanthropist Andrew Forrest that to get traction around tackling modern slavery he must first find a way of measuring it: ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’. Although the idea all human conditions are quantifiable is itself contentious, measurement seems like a sensible enough idea: how else will you know you are making progress?

There is, however, a world of difference between measuring the incidence of something with agreed-upon diagnostic criteria and replicable measurement tools and a messy, complex and largely hidden social ill.

Victims and perpetrators of modern slavery are notoriously hard to find, reluctant to disclose and may not even self-identify as such in the first place. While the adoption of new global guidelines on measuring forced labour sounds promising, we tend to agree with Professor Joel Quirk’s caution: “Unless the underlying data is significantly improved, global estimates should be chiefly regarded as publicity tools”.

Understanding the magnitude of the problem is important in assessing what the appropriate response should be. For example, the UK government puts the social and economic costs of modern slavery at £4.3 billion a year but these figures are based on 10,000-13,000 victims.

If we accepted that there were in fact 136,000 victims, then these costs increase up to ten-fold to over £43 billion – more than the bill for the Brexit divorce.

While reliable estimates of scale will likely remain elusive, in the meantime it is just as important to get a better grasp of the nature of modern slavery (at least the incidents identified as such). One of the first steps here is to acknowledge the diversity within modern slavery and disentangle differences between its variant forms.

New research from the UK shows, for example, that significant differences exist between those trafficked for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and labour exploitation. This type of disaggregated approach can inform much more nuanced and tightly focused analysis, policy and practice. Second, we need to become much more focused in how we assess the geography of trafficking/modern slavery.

Data on sources and destinations are routinely collected but only at country-level, leaving missed opportunities for much more targeted intervention in regional hotspots. Anecdotal evidence cannot be a substitute for rigorous and systematic collection and analysis of data in determining where UK funds are spent in upstream interventions.

Yet, recent Guardian inquiries would question the investment in counter-measures in Nigeria’s Edo State – indeed an important recruitment and transit hub, just not for the UK.

Third, a much more in-depth understanding of the whole process of modern slavery is sorely needed, from recruitment and control mechanisms to sectors where abuses occur, to victims’ pathways out of abuse and support needs thereafter.

Standardising and systematising the collection of information on these various aspects to the complex trafficking process could yield important insights for policy and practice.

Fourth, we need to get much better at understanding what is effective in tackling modern slavery, by what mechanisms and under what conditions it works (or doesn’t). Currently, the evidence-base on ‘what works’ is woefully underdeveloped.

To achieve these goals, we must find ways to bring together disparate data sets better to understand the nature and scale of modern slavery. This phenomenon clearly transcends international borders, but it also doesn’t neatly sit confined within a single agency’s remit or one police force or local government area.

Trying to build coordinated responses in the UK requires navigating a hugely fragmented landscape of stakeholders from across the public, private and third sector. Finding ways to bring together the disparate data they hold on modern slavery would dramatically improve our ability to pinpoint key challenges and identify leverage for intervention.

One of the keys is to talk and listen to the victims. Their biographical journey into, through and out of exploitation could potentially tell us so much. Here, we are not talking about evidence needed to secure a conviction (although there is certainly a place for this), but rather their stories: what were the push and pull factors for them

For example, how and by whom were they recruited, transported, exploited and controlled; where exactly did these steps in the trafficking journey occur; how did they exit the trafficking and what barriers did they face in doing so; what are their physical, psychological, social and economic support needs post-trafficking?

Aligning information from these and other such questions to the evolving data from the national Modern Slavery Helpline and National Referral Mechanism would help to develop detailed thematic, geographical and sector-specific maps of modern slavery in the UK and beyond.

This level of detail, if scaled and overlaid with other datasets could begin to give us a much more nuanced understanding of the scale, nature, distribution and impacts of modern slavery.  Innovation in data collection, collation and analysis is not an end goal in itself, of course, but a vital step towards ensuring that responses to modern slavery are proportionate, targeted, genuinely evidence-informed and – we would hope – effective.