By Jeanne Crump, Senior Associate
The Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation and its partners, estimates the number of people living in modern day slavery in 167 countries. In their 2016 findings, Walk Free estimates there are 45.8 million people enslaved worldwide. According to the Foundation, the index “is a tool for citizens, non-governmental organisations, businesses and public officials to understand the size of the problem, existing responses and contributing factors, so they can build sound policies that will end modern slavery.” A noble effort indeed, but there are several flaws in the validity of the methods used in the index.
The index has three main areas of measurement by country: prevalence of slavery, the strength of that government’s response in battling and preventing slavery, and vulnerability of the country’s citizens (the risk of their being enslaved). The index’s prevalence of slavery value estimates the percent of the population living in slavery and also gives an absolute number. For example, according to the 2016 index, North Korea is ranked number one for the country with the highest percent of people living in slavery at 4.7 percent, but India has the highest estimated absolute number at over 18 million.
Due to the complicated, diverse, and often hidden forms of modern day slavery, measuring and quantifying the crime has been extremely difficult. The index is indeed a tremendous undertaking by Walk Free Foundation and its research team. The results provide insight on the pervasive exploitation of people throughout the world and brings much-needed attention to the problem. It has engaged governments by assessing their responses, and could be a tool in holding our leaders accountable for taking action. In addition, raising awareness about the scale of the problem may lead to increased funding for research, advocacy, and prevention. However, the methodology behind the results raises questions of validity.
A major weakness of the Index is the extrapolation process used to estimate prevalence and absolute numbers for the “hidden” figure of those enslaved. Since 2014, survey questions based on the possible occurrence of forced labor have been incorporated into Gallup’s World Poll, but only in 25 countries (and seven of those countries’ estimates reflect survey data from 2014). Survey data is then extrapolated to the remaining 139 countries, which are now grouped into twelve clusters (the number of clusters has doubled since 2014). The extrapolation process also uses some secondary sources, taking into account additional factors such as state-sanctioned forced labor and conflict.
Even without an extensive background on the prevalence of forced labor, it would be easy to see the flaws and implications this method poses. For example, according to the index, Japan is ranked only one slot below Yemen for the absolute number of those in modern day slavery despite their drastically different total populations. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the economic and political climate of these two countries would question the validity of this assertion.
Clustering countries together based on such limited primary data creates false representation of the actual state of modern day slavery in many countries. Publicizing data that is not accurate could in turn misinform vital policy decisions, law enforcement efforts, and budget allocations.
Year over year estimates are questionable as well. In 2014, the total number of those estimated to be enslaved was roughly 36 million. In 2016, that number is now estimated to be 45.8 million. Has the number of those enslaved globally actually risen–meaning the problem is getting worse, or should we attribute this increase to a larger sample size? Either way, there is no mention of past years’ results or analysis to assess the rise or fall in numbers year to year.
Another area of major contention is the stipulations in which the primary random-sample survey data was collected. Most notably, the sample size was extremely small. In the 25 countries where surveys have been administered, roughly 1000 random families were sampled in each country (with the exception of Russia and India, with 2000 and 3000 surveys, respectively). In Pakistan, where the population is roughly 182 million, the representative sample amounts to .00001 percent of citizens, which arguably is too small of a sample to be representative.
Secondly, the target population of the surveys was those aged 15 and older, leaving out a large portion of child and teenage victims. This may have been taken into account by using “family” as the reference group, as the methodology report states, “To partly address the limitations of a census framework when the target population is largely hidden, the Walk Free Foundation survey questions were based on a network sampling frame. That is, it was decided to use “family” rather than “household” as the reference group, in order to increase the likelihood of identifying victims in a random sample survey.”
In addition, the surveys were primarily conducted in source countries in hopes that upon return migrant workers would be free to speak about their experiences. Perhaps understandably, household surveys in developed countries may not reveal the same kind of vulnerabilities as those countries with a large migrant population. Yet, this strategy again omits major populations of vulnerable people in destination countries (countries that people are trafficked or migrate to) who may actually be the best and most current representative sample. Furthermore, it assumes the ‘developed’ world has less of a slavery problem than ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ source countries, as Time Magazine recently highlighted in their critique of the Index.
The Global Slavery Index provides a basis to assess the problem of forced labor and modern day slavery. It has garnered attention from dozens of major news outlets and received endorsements from politicians to the world’s wealthiest philanthropists. There is no doubt the Index team of researchers worked diligently and effortlessly on producing and improving upon a detailed methodology strategy. In fact, the methodology report was not nearly as extensive in 2013, but has grown to span 144 pages in their 2016 report. This demonstrates a willingness and desire to improve their research with each coming year. Yet, major concerns lie in publicizing data that is not grounded in validated research and may contribute to a misguided approach of tackling the problem of modern day slavery.
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.