Global Report: There are 400,000 Slaves in the "Land of the Free"
July 24, 2018
Edward Helmore / The Guardian & Anne T. Gallagher / The Anti-Trafficking Review
More than 400,000 people could be living in "modern slavery" in the US, a condition of servitude broadly defined in a new study as forced and state-imposed labor, sexual servitude and forced marriage. The Walk Free Foundation describes modern slavery as an often hidden crime that crosses borders and jurisdictions. "The United States is one of the most advanced countries in the world, yet has more than 400,000 modern slaves working under forced labor conditions. This is a truly staggering statistic."
Over 400,000 People Living
in 'Modern Slavery' in US, Report Finds
Edward Helmore / Guardian UK
(July 21, 2018) -- More than 400,000 people could be living in "modern slavery" in the US, a condition of servitude broadly defined in a new study as forced and state-imposed labor, sexual servitude and forced marriage.
The Global Slavery Index, published on Thursday by Walk Free Foundation, describes modern slavery as a complex and often hidden crime that crosses borders, sectors and jurisdictions. The US number, the study estimates, is almost one hundredth of the estimated 40.3 million global total number of people it defines as being enslaved.
"The United States is one of the most advanced countries in the world yet has more than 400,000 modern slaves working under forced labor conditions," said the group's founder, Andrew Forrest, in a news release.
"This is a truly staggering statistic and demonstrates just how substantial this issue is globally. This is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation," Forrest added.
The report estimates most victims of modern slavery live in Asia. North Korea has the highest prevalence of modern slavery globally, with one in 10 of the population, or 2.6 million people, victims of modern slavery.
A third, or 15 million, of victims of modern slavery enter through forced marriage, an issue that disproportionately affects women and girls. "Overall, the cultural practice of forced marriage places women at greater risk of exploitation, and the potential subjection to a life of servitude, financial bondage and sexual exploitation that comes with modern slavery," the report said.
The report also argues the US figures are in themselves deceptive because the US exacerbates the global slavery problem by importing products, including laptops, computers, mobile phones, garments, fish, cocoa and timber, at risk of being produced through forced labor.
The group recommends making forced marriage illegal, creating a minimum marriage age of 18, a national database of trafficking and forced labor cases, and working to improve supply-chain transparency to help bring the US numbers down.
It estimates China is by far the largest source of at-risk goods, with the United States importing $122bn of electronics and clothing from the country. Vietnam was the second largest source with $11.2bn, and India third with $3.8bn.
Smaller values of goods were also sourced from Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Peru.
"There is no quick solution to this and governments, businesses, and consumers alike must wake up to the fact that they must change their behavior if they wish to tackle this abhorrent issue, both at home and abroad," Forrest wrote.
Walk Free's methodology includes extrapolation using national surveys, databases of information of those who were assisted in trafficking cases, and reports from other agencies like the UN's International Labour Organization.
But other anti-exploitation groups offer caution over Walk Free's definition of slavery and the methodology it uses in calculating the numbers of people affected.
In a hrecent essay, What's Wrong with the Global Slavery Index?, published in the Anti-Trafficking Review, the author, Anne Gallagher, argued that the term "modern slavery" seeks to encompass under its expansive umbrella a raft of exploitative practices and a myriad of victims.
"We don't yet have universally accepted diagnostic criteria or credible tools of measurement – which means that universal, reliable calculation of the size of the problem, while an important goal to strive for, is not yet possible," she wrote.
What's Wrong with the Global Slavery Index?
Anne T. Gallagher / The Anti-Trafficking Review
The Global Slavery Index (GSI), which has been produced by the Walk Free Foundation in 2013, 2014 and 2016, seeks to calculate the number of victims of human trafficking (or 'modern slavery') in each country and to assess and rank government responses.
Using the latest iteration of the Index, this article examines each of the three elements (vulnerability measurement; prevalence measurement and response measurement), making some preliminary findings about the quality of the methodology and its application under each heading.
It concludes with a consideration of two broader issues: (i) the conspicuous lack of critical engagement with the Index; and (ii) what the Index reveals about the changing face of anti-trafficking/anti-slavery work -- most particularly, the growing involvement of metrics-focused strategic philanthropy in defining the 'problem' and directing responses.
Since trafficking emerged, almost two decades ago, as an issue of international concern, the quest to quantify the size of the problem -- and to find some way of assessing how well States are responding -- has dominated the discourse and directly influenced the shape of national, regional and international responses. This is part of a much broader trend: quantification of a practice or phenomenon identified as problematic is widely seen to be an essential pre-requisite to any kind of meaningful action. And across the board, contemporary governance has come to rely heavily on rankings and indicators. Particularly in complex areas such as human development, corruption and the rule of law, indexes and other measurement tools provide (or are treated as providing) the otherwise elusive 'evidence base' that helps to secure support for particular responses and to rationalise decision making.
The Global Slavery Index (GSI), which seeks to calculate the number of victims of human trafficking (or 'modern slavery') in each country and to assess and rank government responses, is very much a creature of this environment. The first version of the Index was released in 2013 and a revised version issued the following year. The most recent Index was launched in 2016. Its rationale was made clear from the outset.
As Bill Gates advised fellow billionaire philanthropist Andrew Forrest, in order to secure traction on the issue that Forrest had committed his reputation and an undisclosed slice of his personal fortune to eradicating, he had to find some way of quantifying the problem. In Gates' words: 'if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist'. Just as importantly, if you can't measure it, you cannot reliably demonstrate the impact of any interventions.
Through rigorous measurement, Gates has been able to show, very convincingly, that the work of his Foundation is making a real difference to the global disease toll. But despite references by the GSI's authors to 'an unfolding epidemic', it is critical to point out that measuring modern slavery and quantifying disease are worlds apart. Determining whether someone has malaria or HIV; the extent to which a particular community is affected; and even the vulnerability of a given population to contracting that disease is relatively straightforward.
State, private and academic institutions exist whose sole function is to do just that. They all use the same, replicable method and criteria and they all come up with results that can generally be relied upon -- or at least challenged against those same methods and criteria. (While determining vulnerability to such diseases can be more difficult, the protocols are now well established.)
Extrapolation -- the technique of using known data to arrive at a conclusion about what is happening beyond that data range -- works well in the field of public health as a way of estimating disease prevalence because our understanding of disease, our definitions and our diagnostic tools are sound and universally accepted, having emerged from a long history of inquiry, analysis and refinement.
Disease measurement is also helped by the fact that the test population is generally readily identifiable and able to be engaged as subjects of study. Of course, these factors can come together in very different contexts. The Index's authors note elsewhere that in the mid-nineteenth century the United States was able to accurately measure the size of its slave population. But this is because everyone involved knew exactly what was being counted: slavery back then was a legal fact as well as a physical reality; records were kept and the subjects of measurement were clearly not going anywhere.
'Modern slavery' is something quite different, not least because it is a made-up concept to which no international legal definition is attached. As used by the GSI, the term seeks to encompass under its expansive umbrella a raft of exploitative practices and a myriad of victims: from the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram to the abused maids of diplomatic households in London and Washington; from orphanage tourism in Cambodia to the recruitment of child soldiers by the so-called Islamic State.
Even the authors of the Index have recalibrated their conception of 'modern slavery' from year to year, which makes comparison between their own reports a challenging exercise.
That recalibration may also help to explain the extra ten million slaves uncovered between the Index of 2014 and that of 2016 (perhaps more convincingly than the proffered explanation that this dramatic increase reflects improvements in the methodology).
To take the disease analogy further, there is no epidemiology of what is referred to as modern slavery: no scientific or rational basis for studying patterns, causes and effects. We don't yet have universally accepted diagnostic criteria or credible tools of measurement -- which means that universal, reliable calculation of the size of the problem, while an important goal to strive for, is not yet possible.
These difficulties are well known to those working in the field. Early editions of the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), discussed further below, cited global figures that were later questioned by the US Government Accountability Office, which noted that 'the accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies'.
The TIP Reports no longer provide global or even country estimates of prevalence, instead restricting their hard data to numbers of victims identified and traffickers prosecuted and convicted. In recent years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has felt pressure to affirm the scale of a problem that is central to its raison d'etre.
The ILO has a head start: forced labour is complex but, unlike modern slavery, it is defined in international law and generally well understood. Even so, the hurdles of its measurement are immense. For example, a 2005 ILO estimate of 'at least 12.3 million people in forced labour' increased, seven years later (under 'a new and improved statistical methodology'), to more than 20 million. But despite its recent opportunistic and legally indefensible adoption of the new language of 'modern slavery', the ILO has tried to be open about the difficulties of measuring the number of those in forced labour, the fragility of the resulting data and the highly provisional nature of any conclusions based on that information.21
The Index is untroubled by such inclinations to modesty, setting itself three Herculean tasks: (i) calculating the vulnerability of individuals within each country to enslavement; (ii) measuring the total number of slaves in every country; and (iii) assessing the overall quality of government responses to modern slavery. Seeking to work out how -- and how well -- this has been done is itself a daunting prospect. The methodology used by the Index is complex and, in parts, opaque and incomplete, requiring considerable persistence to unravel and analyse.
But that task, which I can only begin here, is an important one. The purpose of the Index is not just to raise awareness about human exploitation, it is also intended to provide an evidence base for '[advocating and building] sound policies that will eradicate modern slavery', as well as a raft of initiatives loosely linked to Walk Free including those of a number of funds that are expected to disburse millions of dollars to support anti-slavery efforts.
Others, including governments, corporations engaging in the new 'redemptive capitalism' around trafficking and modern slavery, and the many civil society bodies operating in this space will certainly use the Index selectively to advance their own agendas and interests. For these reasons alone, the Index deserves rigorous scrutiny.
This article briefly explores each of the three elements of the Index (vulnerability measurement; prevalence measurement and response measurement), making some preliminary findings about the quality of the methodology and its application under each heading. It then turns to a number of broader issues raised by the Index. Perhaps the most important of these is the lack of critical engagement from those who have the capacity -- and, as I have previously argued, the responsibility -- to interrogate this work carefully, openly and honestly.
What is behind their near-complete silence? To what extent does fear of exclusion from the deep-pocketed, high profile and increasingly glamorous 'modern slavery' club, that counts movie stars and presidents amongst its members, play a role? Does it even matter? Is there value to the argument, which has been repeatedly made to me, that it is unfair and counterproductive to criticise those who are genuinely seeking to do good and useful work?
The second, closely related issue considered in the final section, concerns the changing face of anti-trafficking work -- most particularly, the growing influence of metrics-focused strategic philanthropy over how the 'problem' of trafficking is defined and how responses are crafted and justified.
The involvement of 'philanthrocapitalists' such as Andrew Forrest has undoubtedly had positive effects: injecting much-needed resources and energy into an issue that has been unconscionably marginalised by States and the international community for too long. But at what cost?
Does the tale of the Global Slavery Index, recounted here, herald a new way of approaching challenges that seem beyond the capacity of traditional institutions and approaches to address effectively? Or does it rather serve as a warning against abdicating power and responsibility to a political force that is, at its core, both undemocratic and unaccountable?
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