Nottingham expert wins award for revealing true number of modern slaves

22 Jun 2018 10:28:23.120

An expert from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, who applied a new technique for estimating the real extent of modern slavery, has been recognised with a prestigious award.  

Professor Kevin Bales’ ESRC-funded work on estimates of the numbers of people enslaved has won him the £10,000 award for Outstanding International Impact in the 2018 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize.

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Finding a way to accurately count the number of modern slaves has puzzled researchers for many years. To solve this problem, Professor Bales worked with Sir Bernard Silverman, then the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office and now Professor of Modern Slavery Statistics with the Rights Lab, to adapt a unique statistical methodology known as Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE).

With support from the Walk Free Foundation, they applied this technique to counting slaves in the UK, providing the first reliable estimate of modern slavery. They found the 2013 Home Office figure of 2,744 cases to be an estimated 70% short of the true figure of between 10,000-13,000 people trafficked and enslaved in the UK.  

Once published in 2014, the figures were immediately accepted by then Home Secretary Theresa May as the basis for government future planning and policy development to tackle modern slavery, and underpinned the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act.  Professor Bales then worked to carry out further applications of MSE, particularly in a regional US context. By testing and refining the approach, he produced new prevalence estimates for the region. Other countries are now considering adopting the technique.

The provision of robust figures on modern slavery is crucial in the fight against this global injustice. 

Professor Bales said on his win: “I’m overwhelmed to win this award, which raises more awareness of the work that we are doing in the Rights Lab to combat modern slavery, including the work funded by the ESRC-AHRC PACCs grant Modern Slavery: Meaning and Measurement (2016-18). Better estimates of modern slavery numbers help governments and antislavery groups to understand and tackle this crime. We can’t tackle something if we don’t understand its prevalence."

These MSE techniques used to reveal the extent of modern slavery in the UK also feature in the 2016 Global Slavery Index, on which Professor Bales works closely with the Walk Free Foundation.  Improved national estimates provide a much needed baseline against which the global community can measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal Target of ending slavery by 2030.

“Not only has Professor Bales’ research over many years been absolutely instrumental to the UK’s Modern Slavery Strategy and Act, but it is having a crucial and increasing influence in changing the lives of some of the most vulnerable people worldwide,” says Sir Bernard Silverman.

Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab, said: “Kevin has played a leading role in transforming modern slavery from being a hidden issue to being very widely recognised. This includes his relentless push for better measurement and data on slavery. For policy makers, business people and NGOs, as well as the general public, the concept and measurement of modern slavery allows us all to move in a common direction. We are very proud of Kevin's work in this area, which has opened up new impact pathways based on rigorous social science and helped to guide international policy development."

Professor Todd Landman, Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Science at the University said: “Professor Bales has had a lifelong commitment to combatting slavery, and one key element of this battle has been the attempt to provide reliable estimates for the prevalence of modern slavery across the world. His work has delved deep into key statistical techniques used for other hard to find populations and other human rights violations.

"By working to provide more accurate estimates, Professor Bales has had demonstrable impact through changing the policy landscape and response to modern slavery. The University of Nottingham is honoured that Professor Bales has received this prize, one which is borne of many years of hard work and relentless commitment to the ideal of human dignity studied and enhanced through the application of rigorous social science methods.”


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The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

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Charlotte Anscombe – Media Relations Manager (Arts and Social Sciences)

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