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Every person counts

While this is truly an international effort, Professor Kevin Bales has contributed perhaps more than any other individual 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 campaign group 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, working undercover in countries such as Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil and India. He met teenage sex slaves, families in bondage for centuries, child labourers, men toiling for nothing a thousand miles from home. “I was very shaken, very moved.”

These findings informed the 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 USNGO 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 antislavery 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, 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 has helped put a global figure on the number of slaves – 40.3million – by contributing to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, which ranks countries for slavery prevalence.

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

He is delighted that the Rights Lab’s reputation as a centre for the study of global slavery is attracting scholars of the calibre of Professor Silverman and Dr Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, whose research focuses on the perpetrators of slavery. “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.”


When Kevin Bales joined the University, he set up the world’s first MA in Slavery and Liberation.

It was in response to the growing profile of the antislavery movement: the will and resources to tackle slavery were growing but there was little knowledge or expertise in how to liberate slaves or support them afterwards.

The online course builds on the University’s pioneering expertise in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), including its popular free course in Ending Slavery that Professor Bales leads. The course reaches 10,000 learners from 150 different countries a year.

“It was a game-changer,” he said of the MA. “A lot of people doing this degree work with governments, NGOs, international bodies: we have a student running a shelter for sex-trafficked women, another student is an antislavery activist in Cambodia. Modules are run by world-leading experts with many years of experience on the ground, such as a colleague from the Freedom Fund. It’s a distance-learning degree and then students come from around the world for a two-week residential. We’re building a global network for advice as well as learning.”

Multiple Systems Estimation: measuring the prevalence of modern day slavery

Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) was firstused 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, slaves 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. This information is then entered into Multiple Systems Estimation: measuring the prevalence of modern day slavery a formula that generates a reliable estimate of the number of slaves within a specific area.

The application of its data expertise to the Global Slavery Index, launched at the UN’s Headquarters in New York this year, has further raised the international profile of the Rights Lab. A team from the Beacon of Excellence was invited to the UN earlier this year to discuss progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 – ending slavery by 2030.

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

Kevin Bales is the Rights Lab Research Director. Kevin joined Nottingham as Professor of Contemporary Slavery in 2016. 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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