Reflecting on Challenges and Best Practices for Research Methods to Investigate Forced Labour

19 March 2019
Research Innovation

Genevieve LeBaron  | Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Forced labour is illegal. Most governments are hesitant to grant researchers access to their workforces. Powerful companies often don’t want academics investigating forced labour in their supply chains. There is potential for vulnerable workers to be further endangered through participation in research. Yet, to eradicate forced labour, we need to understand its forms and patterns within the global economy. So how can we research forced labour in ways that are rigorous, ethical, reliable and safe?

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to receive a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award to explore this question. I used part of my award to hold two methodological symposia, at SPERI in Sheffield and at The British Academy in London. These symposia convened a group of experts and scholars who had successfully researched forced labour to explore best practices and the potential to scale up and collaborate towards a more reliable evidence base that could be joined up across sector, country and disciplinary divides.

I invited academics from several disciplines, including law, management studies, politics, geography, anthropology and development studies, as well as researchers from the International Labour Organization and Anti-Slavery International. Together, we reflected on the methodological challenges and breakthroughs from our own research on forced labour. We discussed how we could collaborate as researchers in the field to generate more robust and comparable data on forced labour. We heard how researchers of other difficult-to-research problems like corruption, HIV and the “old” slave trade conducted their research before reliable datasets were available. And we also considered the politics that surround forced labour research and discussed how those shape the approaches we take.

Many of our reflections have just been published as an edited book, Researching Forced Labour in the Global Economy: Methodological Challenges and Advances, within the Proceedings of the British Academy series by Oxford University Press in December 2018. I want to highlight four big picture reflections from our book for the field of forced labour research.

First, there are sizeable gaps in relation to data on the business of forced labour—more so than other aspects of this phenomenon. As Andrew Crane and I argue in our chapter, this relates both to the lack of business and management expertise within the field of forced labour research and the sizeable empirical challenges of accessing commercially sensitive information about businesses and their supply chains. We map out the key gaps in data (see table below) and provide an overview of direct and indirect sources that could reliably provide this information to researchers.

This table comes from Genevieve LeBaron and Andrew Crane, “Methodological Challenges in the Business of Forced Labour,” in Genevieve LeBaron (ed)(2018) Researching Forced Labour in the Global Economy: Methodological Challenges and Advances. Oxford University Press (pg. 30).


Second, harmonization around a definition of forced labour would go a long way towards achieving consistency and comparability in the evidence base on forced labour. In his chapter, Jean Allain, a law professor and expert on the legal definitions of slavery, provides a practical guide for humanities and social science researchers to identify forced labour and distinguish it from lesser forms of exploitation, as well as from slavery.

Third, several authors in the book underscore the tendency among some anti-slavery NGOs to make inflated claims on the basis of sparse research in an effort to underscore the importance of the problem, or to distort or ignore empirical findings that do not conform to the conclusion they wish to draw. We need to be careful to ensure that such practices are not mirrored in academic research and cautious about reproducing methodologically suspect “facts and figures” about forced labour.

Fourth, and relatedly, there is no such thing as politically neutral or apolitical data on forced labour. As the chapters by Nicola Phillips, Samuel Okyere, Joel Quirk, Jessica Pliley and Neil Howard reveal, researchers’ choices—such as the way that the problem of forced labour is framed and understood, who is (or isn’t) demonstrated to bear responsibility, whether and how its root causes are foregrounded and obscured, how workers’ agency is (or isn’t) accounted for—are fundamentally political and shape real-world efforts by policymakers, NGOs, religious groups and business to address these problems. While it is true that what happens to data and evidence once it is published is often outside of the researchers’ control, there is nevertheless a need for researchers to be conscious of the potential impacts of their work on activism and policymaking responses to forced labour.

Researching forced labour is practically, analytically and methodologically challenging, as well as time and resource intensive. Yet, building a reliable evidence base is absolutely vital if we are to inform the policy initiatives required to achieve Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals. As researchers, sharing our reflections on best practices and openly discussing challenges will help to catalyse and inspire the research that this will take.

This article has been prepared by Genevieve LeBaron 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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