LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A global agreement to map and count the victims of forced labor is a landmark that activists say will revolutionize efforts to free millions of people around the world from modern slavery.
It will be the first time that the campaign to end slavery can join the dots between countries, though experts say global data will be costly to compile and the results slow to follow.
“Having comparable measures will revolutionize our ability to track the prevalence of forced labor and begin to more robustly identify its causes and dynamics,” said Kelly Gleason of the United Nations University’s Center for Policy Research.
“Adoption of the new ... guidelines is a watershed moment,” added the center’s leading anti-slavery data scientist.
The guidelines were backed by 147 nations last week at the 20th International Conference of Labor Statisticians.
The dry title belies the big potential on offer.
Experts say access to better data - this would for the first time put the global anti-slavery drive on a scientific footing - should help governments to track the scale, causes and dynamics of forced labor, so enabling better policy and policing.
Current efforts are piecemeal, many experts say, though the ever worsening trade in people crosses all sectors and borders.
From factories, farms and fishing boats to domestic servitude and sex work, about 25 million people globally are estimated to be victims of forced labor, according to a watershed U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate.
Tackling slavery is increasingly seen as a global priority, yet experts say the world is unlikely to meet a U.N. goal to end the crime by 2030 without access to reliable and uniform data.
Only a handful of nations, including the Netherlands and Britain, have carried out such national estimates to date.
A much-heralded 2017 joint estimate by the ILO and rights group Walk Free Foundation to count the number of people living as slaves found that some 25 million were victims of forced labor and at least 15 million were trapped in forced marriages.
Yet the inclusion of forced marriage sparked controversy and critics said the methodology was limited, so the estimate could not be used to shape policy or track progress.
The ILO and Walk Free conducted surveys in 48 countries and interviewed about 71,000 people, with findings supplemented by data from the U.N. International Organization for Migration.
Walk Free’s 2018 survey found that North Korea, Eritrea and Burundi had the world’s worst slavery rates, with India home to the largest number of victims, at about 8 million.
“Unless the underlying data is significantly improved, global estimates should be chiefly regarded as publicity tools,” said Joel Quirk, head of political studies at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand and a reputable anti-slavery author.
“Targeted research into specific locations and industries, such as sex work or migrant labor, is likely to be more valuable from a policy standpoint,” he added.
The guidelines classify forced labor as any form of work that is carried out under the threat of punishment and is involuntary, according to the U.N.-backed document.
“Country efforts in this space may have been hindered by a lack of agreement on definitions and how to measure forced labor,” said Nick Grono, chief executive of the Freedom Fund, the first private donor fund dedicated to eradicating slavery.
“Significantly, these new guidelines are the first time that states have agreed on standardized measures of forced labor, demonstrating growing political will to tackle this issue.”
They include guidance on the thorny issue of defining forced labor, best data practice, how to survey the public, as well as ethical considerations around the safety of respondents.
Yet carrying out surveys to estimate the scale of forced labor at a national level requires large samples and will prove expensive, said the ILO’s senior statistician Michaelle De Cock.
While gathering data is often time-consuming and costly, the methodology and template outlined in the guidelines can slip into existing national labor surveys, several experts said.
“And once rolled out, the guidelines will hopefully deliver a broad and comparable dataset - one that other researchers can use as they develop new techniques for prevalence estimation,” said Zoe Trodd, director of Nottingham University’s Rights Lab.
“It’s a huge step forward, toward officially-sanctioned global data,” Trodd told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org