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Every person counts

While ending slavery is a global effort, Professor Kevin Bales has contributed more than most to placing the end of slavery within our grasp.

More than 20 years ago, Professor Bales thought slavery had largely disappeared. Yet via the UK NGO Anti-Slavery International, he came across a claim that there were millions enslaved around the world. Little was known about slavery’s prevalence or persistence into the late 20th century.

The social scientist resolved to carry out his own research and this expanded into a global field study and the first research into 21st-century slavery. He worked in countries such as Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil and India, and met families in hereditary bondage, child labourers, men toiling for nothing a thousand miles from home. “I was very shaken, very moved.”

These findings informed his book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy and, via translation into 13 languages and an award-winning film, Professor Bales helped to launch and shape history’s fourth antislavery movement (following the UK, US and Congo abolitionist movements of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries). He established and led the US NGO Free the Slaves and his work has been named by Universities UK as one of the top 100 world-changing discoveries of the past 50 years. Professor Bales is a key figure in the science behind the anti-slavery movement, equipping policymakers with the data and toolkits needed to act.

Together with Professor Sir Bernard Silverman, then Chief Scientific Officer at the Home Office and now the University’s Professor of Modern Slavery Statistics, Professor Bales provided the UK’s first reliable estimate of modern slavery; at between 10,000 and 13,000 people, it was 70% higher than the Home Office estimate.

Not only applying this methodology for the UK, the Rights Lab worked closely with the Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free to support its global estimates of modern slavery, most recently estimated at 40.3 million people.

In 2018 Professor Bales received the Economic and Social Research Council’s International Impact Prize in recognition of his slavery measurement work.

He is delighted that the Rights Lab’s long-standing reputation as the largest and leading centre for the study of modern slavery continues to grow. “We are having a huge impact and the Rights Lab has brought together dedicated, specialist people. It’s a quantum leap: to address something as threatening and complex as contemporary slavery you need to come at it from many angles and here we have teams working across many dimensions.”

Multiple Systems Estimation: measuring the prevalence of modern day slavery

Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) was first used to estimate fish stocks and then to reveal probable numbers of victims of human rights atrocities in Latin America.

With Professor Silverman, Professor Bales seized upon MSE as a means of estimating slavery. In developed countries, the number of enslaved people may be fewer but they are harder to find and liberate, hidden away from regulated industries and forced into illegal activities on the margins of society.

MSE takes data from several sources; in this model, lists of trafficked or enslaved people collated from different organisations such as NGOs, local government and the police. These lists are compared to check data and identify overlaps, measuring the prevalence of modern day slavery with a formula that generates a reliable estimate of the number of enslaved people within a specific area.

Professor Bales said: “Once we have figures for the prevalence of slavery, it equips policymakers and governments to make a logical response and allocate resources.”

Kevin Bales

Professor Kevin Bales is the Rights Lab Research Director and Professor of Contemporary Slavery. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the Queen’s New Year Honours in 2017 for his ‘services to the global antislavery movement’.

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