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The financial argument, a complement to moral decision-making

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Mattheus Webster
- Research Consultant

Date: 8 September 2022

Contemporary discussions on modern slavery tie in with ethical discourse and normative considerations. Modern slavery has been framed as a ‘moral issue’ (Guetierrez-Huerter, Gold & Trautrims, 2021, p. 12), its policy framework has been called ‘moralistic’ (Broad & Turnbull, 2019, p. 1). But however pivotal such moral dimensions are, a focus on ethics alone does not do justice to all facets of the crime, and sometimes does not offer enough persuasion to act. To improve our knowledge of modern slavery, its victims, and its prevalence, it is of great importance to get a grasp of its precise health, social and economic costs.

Expressing harm in monetary terms may help in achieving such understanding and allow people to gain better insight in the lived realities of victims and the damage modern slavery does to society (Lietonen & Ollus, 2017). According to Professor Sylvia Walby, ‘monetising the victim’s journey can help improve decision making around the best way to use public funds. We see how the spending on specialised support services is small in comparison to the cost of the harms to society’ (Little, 2019). Monetisation of such harms has led stakeholders to draw the conclusion that intensifying and prolonging comprehensive care for modern slavery victims and investing in the prevention of modern slavery has net economic benefits to society (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019; Little, 2019). They conclude that insufficient attention to modern slavery results not only in forsaken moral responsibilities, but also harms the economy – which in turn reduces budgets available to address various pressing societal issues. 

In the Modern Slavery Act 2015, modern slavery is used as an umbrella term referring to ‘human trafficking and slavery, servitude and forced compulsory labour’ (Home Office, 2022). The number of potential modern slavery victims sent to the national referral mechanism (NRM) in the UK increased from 2.340 in 2014 to 10.000 in 2020 (Home Office, 2021). It is likely that better understanding of modern slavery offences, the increased awareness of the crime and enhanced police recordings since the enactment of the MSA have played a role in this increase. Nonetheless, because of the crime’s complex nature, the actual number of victims is expected to be much higher, which suggests that moral, societal, and economical costs – even in their monetised translation – remain underestimated. More funding and attention to modern slavery will presumably bring to light how (morally/socially/economically) costly the crime in reality is.

Experts estimate that human trafficking for sexual exploitation currently costs the UK at least £980 million each year, while organised child exploitation is believed to cost the UK £1.1 billion a year (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019). National and transnational crime, in which many victims of modern slavery are involuntarily involved, are estimated to cost the UK at least £24 billion annually (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019).

These total estimates could be dissected in different cost items. Victims of modern slavery are, for instance, more likely to become homeless (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019). The NGO Hope for Justice states that 70% of the victims they helped would have been homeless without their intervention ( Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019). People who experience homelessness are more likely to require aid by e.g., costly mental health services, emergency services and temporary housing services (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019). Moreover, homelessness is associated with higher chances of vandalism, substance abuse and dependence issues, re-trafficking of victims, unwillingness to co-operate in criminal investigations and various types of criminal activity – meaning that the criminal justice system will be more heavily relied on compared to situations in which homelessness is prevented (Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019). Other examples of modern slavery’s quantifiable costs to society include the administration of justice, in terms of criminal proceedings against perpetrators of modern slavery offences, potential detentions, and lost tax income and insurance contributions – victims of modern slavery are prevented from finding proper employment and could be hampered in their functioning years after the commission of the offence (Little, 2019; Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, 2019)

Evidently, preventing modern slavery or intensifying the care offered to victims comes at a certain cost itself, but these costs – even in mere economic terms – do not weigh up against the benefits. Nicholson, Schwarz, Landman & Griffith, for instance, have estimated that an additional 12 months of comprehensive support for victims referred to the NRM in 2017 would have led to net benefits and savings of between £1 million and £6.6 million (2019). Preventing (re-)trafficking and exploitation of people offers considerable (economic) benefits to society.

Including a socioeconomic perspective in discussions on modern slavery, especially when the allocation of public funds and attention is concerned, will, by improving decision-makers’ cost-benefit analyses, benefit both (potential) victims and society at large. It should be considered alongside moral and normative frameworks.

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