By Lorena Arocha
On the 29th of November, the coalition government launched its new Modern Slavery Strategy, making headlines on all major news outlets. As part of this strategy, the Home Office commissioned its Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Bernard Silverman to estimate the scale of modern slavery in the UK. He came up with an estimate of between 10,000-13,000 people being under modern slavery in the UK using existing data from 2013. To get to this number, he used a technique called ‘Multiple Systems Estimation’. This technique is a development of a capture-recapture estimation method often used in ecology to determine the size of a particular animal population. This method has been used in the past by the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour of the International Labour Organisation in 2005 to first estimate Forced Labour in the World and is routinely applied to estimating human rights violations.
These methods are advanced quantitative techniques but their effectiveness often relies on the quality of the data on which they are applied. Professor Silverman recognises this and these numbers are only minimum estimates, given the shortcomings of the data on which they rely. It is using 2013 estimates by the National Crime Agency (NCA) as to the numbers of potential victims of human trafficking, which, in turn, are based on numbers of potential victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Not all these potential victims of human trafficking will be officially recognised as victims, as cases where there is still a pending conclusive decision were also considered. The NRM is a procedure to identify victims of trafficking that the UK government put in place in 2009 following their ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Human Trafficking. The NRM has long been criticised for its inadequacy in supporting victims of trafficking and currently it is under review. It was established for human trafficking exclusively, and hence it does not incorporate other forms of exploitation that might now be labelled as ‘modern slavery’ under the new Bill going through Parliament at the moment, such as forced labour, debt bondage and child sexual exploitation.
As I have argued elsewhere, using Foucault and Schön (Arocha, 2013), policy making turns specific social issues associated with complex and chaotic social processes of modernity and late-modernity into intelligible and manageable ‘objects of knowledge’. These are considered ‘true or false’ often when they can be independently quantified (Stiglitz, 1986). Hence, the emphasis on estimates. Numbers allow for the allocation of funding, funding which is finite and to be distributed among a number of competing priorities.
This guessestimate and its accompanied strategy reveal a number of worrying trends:
- There is no clarity as to what is meant by modern slavery: does it mean something other than human trafficking? If not, as looking at the data used to calculate the estimate of modern slaves in the UK indicate, why the re-labelling? What interests does this meet? Will this dilute the UK’s obligations under international legislation against human trafficking?
- Lack of clarity on definitions will surely translate into a number of malpractices in terms of identification of victims of trafficking, which in turn will continue to justify government agencies’ emphasis on identifying ‘genuine victims of trafficking’ from those who are not
- The strategy mentions human rights twice only and the approach adopted certainly does not aim to protect the human rights of concerned populations, relieving the agencies with leading responsibilities to tackle trafficking of such duties
Rather than using highly emotive language and talking about apprehending traffickers and slave-drivers, the UK government could have taken a much more progressive and candid approach to tackling what they call trafficking and modern slavery. These exploitative practices are not the result of a group of evildoers, but are uncomfortably the product of wider societal structures. The UK government could have conducted a comprehensive review of their policies and identify which are those that are actually rendering certain populations vulnerable to exploitation, in whichever form or shape. Enabling people to have access to and exercise their rights whether they are children, men or women, British or foreign nationals, sex workers, migrants or otherwise would go a long way towards eliminating exploitation. This will certainly reduce the opportunities some find to exploiting others. As Sassen has most recently argued, this is simply the proliferation of the extreme version of often familiar conditions.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30255084; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/29/13000-slaves-uk-four-times-higher-previously-thought ; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/up-to-13000-victims-of-modern-slavery-are-trapped-in-the-uk-9892395.html
 See Silverman (2014: 2)