A Human Rights Approach to Measuring Modern Slavery

26 December 2018
Research Innovation

Todd Landman  | Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences, the University of Nottingham
The Rights Lab  | University of Nottingham Beacon of Excellence

For more than 30 years, human rights scholars and practitioners have been developing methods and strategies for measuring and analysing human rights across their different categories and dimensions. These methods include using data from events, coding standards, deploying surveys, using socio-economic and administrative statistics, and utilizing big data based on text, images, social media and other forms of large data available for secondary analysis. But this work has largely ignored the study of modern slavery, while slavery scholars themselves have not made best use of the lessons learned in the human rights measurement community.

The primary focus of the human rights measurement work has been on the respect for and protection of civil and political rights using events and standards-based data, such as the pioneering work of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Political Terror Scale, which focus on state and non-state violations of physical integrity rights, such as torture, execution and political imprisonment. These early efforts have been refined and enhanced with the further development of the “who did what to whom” model and Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) for generating events-based data by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, while the Cingranelli and Richards (CIRI) data set and the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) have focused on providing wider sets of standards-based data.

In addition to attention on civil and political rights, there have been recent advances in the measurement of economic and social rights, most notably the Economic and Social Rights Empowerment Index (SERF Index), which uses the idea of the production possibility frontier from development economics to measure the degree to which social and economic rights are being realized given underlying patterns of economic development and capacity. The SERF index joins other data initiatives such as the physical quality of life index (PQLI) and the Human Development Index (HDI) in providing comparable measures of development that move beyond a mere focus on per capita GDP.

These processes in the evolution of human rights measures have undergone important operational steps that include:

  • identifying the overall background concept to be measured;
  • refining a systemized concept;
  • selecting or developing indicators for the concept; and
  • assigning scores on units of analysis, such as individuals, groups, regions and countries over time.

This process is now well articulated and features in the formal guidance on human rights indicators set out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This rich history of data development and enhancement in the human rights community provides a backdrop to the many challenges associated with measuring modern slavery. The concept of modern slavery, as opposed to historic slavery, remains contested, but there is a strong consensus among many slavery scholars and practitioners through reference to the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery. It is also possible to map the concept of slavery across international law and international human rights law, which shows the core content of slavery, but remains to some degree in continuous development. These and other similarities mean that the modern slavery community has much to draw on in setting out its measurement and analytical strategies.

Understanding the true nature and extent of modern slavery in any given local or national context is fraught with methodological difficulties, stemming from the fundamental problem that victims of modern slavery are a hard-to-find population. Prevalence estimates to date have used events-based and survey-based approaches that seek to uncover actual instances of modern slavery or constellations of factors relating to vulnerability that raise the probability of any one person or group of people to be modern slaves.

Events-based approaches have been used to estimate the number of slaves in the UK based on comparison across different lists using MSE. Improvements in this method of estimation come from greater accuracy in the original lists that are collected (through state and non-state agencies) and a greater degree of overlap across these lists, which would provide for a more certain estimation with a smaller margin of error.

Using multi-level modelling based on random sample survey instruments deployed in high prevalence countries, the Walk Free Foundation have estimated what they call the Global Slavery Index (GSI). The use of surveys is typically done in high prevalence countries, since a random sample approach is unlikely to find instances in low prevalence countries; an insight that is at the heart of survey-based approaches used by Physicians for Human Rights in their work on countries in conflict.

In the case of modern slavery, Walk Free have worked with the International Labour Organization to estimate the prevalence of forced labour and forced marriage across a large sample of countries. They concluded in their most recent study that there are an estimated 40.3 million slaves in the world today. Prevalence varies considerably, with an overall skewed distribution of a small number of countries with a large number of slaves—India, North Korea and China—and a large number of countries with small number of slaves.

My own work on analysing the GSI using standard models drawn from the political science of human rights shows that that slavery prevalence co-varies with government response, levels of democracy, levels of economic development and the presence of conflict. Drawing the study of slavery into these more mainstream approaches from political science and international relations helps provide an understanding of the drivers for slavery, the country contexts that are best for lowering its prevalence and potential policy interventions that will have a long-lasting impact on the reduction of slavery. If Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals seeks to end slavery by 2030, then the achievements that have already been made in the broad field of human rights measurement and analysis can bring much to bear for achieving this important global goal.

Overall, much groundwork on human rights measurement is directly applicable to the measurement and analysis of modern slavery. More work is needed to ground modern slavery in conceptions of human rights that move beyond civil and political rights to include economic and social rights, where existing provisions for the protection of labour and worker rights should take into account the extreme forms of labour exploitation found in modern slavery, and where the progressive realization of these rights would address the root causes of slavery. In addition, there are existing and new forms of data that can be used to help us understand the true nature and extent of the problem, the reasons for it and ways to end it.

Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

This article has been prepared by Todd Landman as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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