People trapped in modern slavery situations endure terrible conditions, threats to their safety, and limits on their freedom. Yet sometimes, they actually do less work than they really want to. It may sound unlikely, but as a business model of exploitation, it has its own warped logic.
The term “modern slavery” usually describes the very worst forms of human exploitation. Whether it is young girls forced into prostitution, construction workers trapped in bonded labour, or migrants forced onto fishing vessels to work for years at a time for no pay, the creativity with which exploitation is used to generate profits for some, at a terrible cost to others, knows few bounds.
The economic logic of extreme exploitation appears to be pretty simple. By using violence, threats or deception to force people into work they would not otherwise do, the exploiter solves a labour supply problem, reduces labour costs, and gets a lot more work out of people than if they were freely employed.
Most accounts of forced labour include descriptions of arduous and dangerous work, long working days, few (if any) days off, and squalid conditions. So surely it stands to reason that a ruthless “employer” would work their “slaves” as hard as they can.
Well, not quite – or at least, not always. Our research into the business models of modern slavery in the UK explored various situations where workers were forced into working long hours with little pay. But we also came across situations where apparent slaves, especially in the agricultural sector, appeared to be given very little work to do. Sometimes, this could be no work at all for stretches of several weeks, or only a few hours or one or two days per week.
At first this perplexed us. Why would you coerce workers into a situation of forced labour if you were not going to work them as hard as you could? And make no mistake, these were forced labourers. They were intimidated by threat or force to stay with their employers. As the United Nations agency the International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts it, they were under “menace of penalty” if they tried to leave. So why were they given so little work?
The answer, we believe, comes from understanding the underlying business models of modern slavery. There are a variety of ways that people make money from modern slavery, and sometimes we have to go beyond the idea that it simply reduces labour costs. In the case of the underworked agricultural slaves, the business model of the companies employing them differed from how we might ordinarily understand the business of modern slavery.
Two features stood out in particular. First, the main way that “employers” exercised control over their workers was through debt bondage – usually instigated at the point of recruiting migrant workers overseas. As one of our informants explained:
People [are] being told: ‘Well, you come to the UK, we’ll lend you the money, or if you get here we’ll provide you with accommodation and wages, work.’ And then when they get here they deliberately don’t give them any work to do. They say: ‘Look, in another two weeks’ time, three weeks’ time we can give you work. At the moment there’s none but don’t worry about it, you can stay in the accommodation we provided. [Here’s] a bit of money so you don’t starve, pay me back when you start getting your wages.’ So they sound very nice and reasonable, but the thing is to build up this bondage so they can’t just walk away.
Second, the way that employers make money from forced labour in this situation is not just in reducing labour costs but in generating revenue from the sale of all these additional goods and services to workers under their control. Accommodation, food and transport are provided at monopoly prices to workers who have no other choices. These reap considerable rewards for employers as well as helping drive workers deeper into debt.
To service this debt, workers may secure funds from family members abroad or instant loan services, which enables their exploiters to generate additional revenue. In other cases, workers will merely continue to accumulate large amounts of debt, usually with undisclosed premium interest rates, that they cannot repay. Consequently, they are pushed further into financial dependence and become increasingly susceptible to continued exploitation. It becomes a cycle of debt and exploitation that is extremely difficult to break.
As a business model, this deviates from the norm because the employer deliberately takes on more workers than it needs for the work it expects to get. But this oversupply can be beneficial for the unscrupulous employer if it thinks of its workers as consumers (albeit consumers without a choice), as much as they are employees. The underworked agricultural “slaves” may have looked at first like an aberration. But actually they are a powerful illustration of the constant innovation in the business models of exploitation.