Human trafficking, or it’s rebranded moniker ‘modern slavery’, has transitioned from the crime that “shames us all”, to its 2017 slogan as a crime that “unites us all”. It has been described as “the great moral calling of our time”, “a crime against humanity”, and “an open wound on the body of contemporary society”. Few can resist repeating the saying designed to shock the world into action – “there are more slaves now than at any other time in history”.

This escalating moral call to combat trafficking coincides with contemporary policymaking’s heavy reliance on rankings and indicators to understand complex issues and respond appropriately. While index proponents echo Bill Gates’ oft-quoted phrase, “if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, critics lament the usability and reliability of findings that reduce complex, global problems such as human development, corruption and fragility into simplified, global rankings.

Measuring human trafficking is not immune to this numerical benchmarking trend. Over the past decade, some of the biggest players in international development have released estimates of the prevalence of human trafficking, or assessments of government responses to combating it, including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Walk Free Foundation (WFF), and the Governments of the United States of America (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and the Netherlands. Even private companies, like Maplecroft, have started their own for-profit modern slavery estimates designed to be purchased by corporations increasingly cautious about the reputational risks of discovering slavery in their supply chains.

The result? An increasingly crowded marketplace of measurement, competition for donor dollars, political manoeuvring surrounding who has the mandate to measure, and inconsistent messaging in the media over the scale and scope of modern slavery. Is it more accurate to quote the UN’s official yet dated forced labour figures? Or the more recent modern slavery figures from a newcomer Australian organisation, WFF? Is it wrong to quote estimates and only report on UNODC’s known cases?

This is why the release of the world’s first Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (GEMS) in September 2017 is so significant. Not only are these figures crucial for better understanding the global scale and scope of trafficking, but they are the result of collaboration between the ILO, WFF, and the IOM. In this highly-politicised landscape, willingness to pool brains and funds should be applauded. After all, the end goal is ameliorating the suffering and extreme exploitation of people.

The GEMS found a staggering 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016 – 25 million people in forced labour, a further 15 million people forced into marriage. Women and girls accounted for 71 per cent of all victims. One in four victims was a child.

“This is 40 million people who are not free to leave the situation, to refuse the exploitation that is being forced on them, or even to refuse or leave a marriage they have not chosen,” said Jacqui Joudo Larsen, co-author of the Global Estimates report. “This is happening in every region of the world.”

The figures are sobering. In the 17 years since the international community vocally vowed to end the exploitation, we are clearly falling far short of the true structural changes required to liberate victims. However, reducing the competition around who counts, and agreeing to collaborate, is a strong initial step to avoid obscuring the face of suffering in the pursuit of political positioning.

What remains to be seen now is how these GEMS will be embraced by the global and UN community. Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UNODC has the mandate to measure the world’s progress in eliminating forced labour, modern slavery, and child labour. Will they adopt these current figures and assist in future efforts to refine the still patchy methodology? Or will they attempt to compile their own figures of human exploitation, adding another set of metrics into the already complex global debate?

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, with funding from the ENACT programme, is working to build an international index that will measure the scope, scale and presence of different illicit markets.  To avoid data duplication by incorporating the strongest and most recent global crime data, we will follow the evolution of the trafficking measurement debate with interest.