The prospects and perils of quantification: Global Forced Labour Estimates and the Sustainable Development Goals

Symposium on Forced Labour Research, Sheffield University

8 Oct 2015

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone that since I was asked to speak here I’ve been thinking a lot about the number 42.

42 is, as Douglas Adams reminded us, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

It is an absurd notion, but Adams was getting at an important point with his tales of Deep Thought in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. He was getting at that belief in large parts of the modern world that the only things that matter are the quantifiable ones. It’s part of the discourse that poverty reduction in general, and slavery eradication in particular, are technocratic challenges which merely require the rational thought of the clever and the largesse of the rich to fix.

But, of course most of the things that matter in life, the universe and everything cannot be quantified, or are things for which numbers are merely crude metaphors. How do you quantify love? Or the experience of watching a sunrise in the Ethiopian highlands or dolphins dancing off the coast of Angola? Or the pleasure of a fine wine and cake?

Or the level of contempt that one person can have for another human being that allows them to calmly contemplate working them to death?

Non-quantifiable questions about non-rational issues, are at the heart of the practice of slavery. In particular the questions of discrimination and the dehumanisation of other people are fundamental to slavery.

It is technically true that anyone can be enslaved, particularly if they are caught up in the cataclysms of war. But that truism masks a more fundamental truth: that the weak who are subject to the prejudices of others are the ones who are vastly more at risk of enslavement: Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia; migrants in Western Europe and the Americas; women and children everywhere.

So given the topic of this roundtable, my question is: how can one obtain insight into any of these issues with quantitative methods?

Of course there is a need to quantify the scale of slavery in the world, to help plan responses and assess progress. But knowing the numbers does not allow one to understand the reasons why people are enslaved nor how their enslavement may be ended.

Anyone who has done any reading in the social sciences will be aware of the sort of profound insight that quantitative methods can provide. But it needs particularly skilled and focused researchers gifted with exceptional acuity in the framing of questions. I suspect we may be some way off a sufficiently widespread understanding of the generalities of contemporary slavery and the specifics of its national and cultural manifestations before such research practice can come into its own.

So, as a general rule I would argue that, even though quantity has its own quality, increased qualitative research is more vitally required for the understanding of the root causes of slavery and the political and social remedies to the problems.

Qualitative and historical studies have shown us that effective anti-slavery action still requires the elimination of underlying discrimination practices and empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery. It has shown us the importance of provision of high quality and appropriate education to children vulnerable to slavery. It has shown us the importance of unionisation as a means to rebalance the power between exploited workers and employers. It has shown us how combinations of governmental cynicism and ineptitude contribute to the endangering of vulnerable workers both in their home countries and when they travel in search of decent work.

That is not to say the qualitative research is a silver bullet. In spite of much qualitative research, including that conducted by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group which Anti-Slavery leads, the British Conservative Government remains thoroughly convinced that the principle cause of slavery in the UK is evil organised criminal masterminds, and have proven remarkably resistant to the notions that their Overseas Domestic Worker visa, their lack of labour inspection within risky industries such as construction, and their police cuts have anything to do with the problem.

This brings me to another point. The ending of slavery is a political challenge. Or rather it is a bundle of national and international political challenges. And these political challenges bump up against the prejudices and pretensions of the privileged,, who since the days of Sparta have conspired to keep power out of the hands of the helots. Thus it is. Thus has it always been.

And, as with the British government’s notions of why there is slavery in the UK, these prejudices are deeply resistant to erosion by mere facts. Economic agency theory suggests that humans will always act to maximise their material benefit. But when Hamilton tried to establish a slavery-free economy in the US in the 1790s and when Lincoln tried compensated emancipation at the outset of his presidency, both failed to end slavery in spite of the economic benefits they promised to slave holders. The American Plantocracy were so wedded to their aristocratic privilege that their status gave them, they found it something that mere economic wealth could not compensate them for.

We see similar issues today when we carefully consider slavery across the world. In the Arabian peninsula the Kafala system provides the legal basis by which the elites can obtain economic benefit by indulging their prejudices against South Asian migrant workers by enslaving them. In South Asia the rule of law does not extend to the hundreds of millions of Dalits and Adivasi who live there and hence the powerful are able to enslave them with impunity. Different political economic models are unappealing to the elites in these situations because they would involve treating those they disdain with decency and recognition of our common humanity.

The increased complexity of the Sustainable Development Goals over the Millennium Goals, and their rooting in human rights standards hopefully will help us move on from that limited technocratic discourse.

This technocratic approach to slavery seems to me at the moment to be leading to a fixation upon a search for a menu of technical options which only require money to be plugged into in order to achieve change. Such an approach is chimeric. It can never replace the hard political work, the partnerships and community development, the research and investigations, the exposes and confrontations, the dialogue and collaborations, that is necessary to shift power into the hands of those who have been excluded from power.

In the end, I would suggest, that the visceral is as important as the rational: which side are you on? The struggle of the helots, the Dalits, the migrants, the outcasts continues. And, unless we properly understand that, irrespective of what we try to do or how we try to do it, we are fated to become part of that most accursed community in human history and society – the well-meaning.

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