People trapped in modern slavery can be ‘underworked’ by ruthless employers, to increase their debt bondage and provide revenue from living costs.
The assumption that victims of exploitation are worked like ‘slaves’ is shielding extra layers of exploitation, shows research led by the University ’s School of Management, published by the Academy of Management.
The study of the food and construction sectors in the UK found that far from being worked as hard as they can, victims can sometimes be given no work for several weeks, or only a few hours a week.
Gangmasters take on more workers than they need and deliberately avoid giving victims work. They provide them with accommodation and money for food, on the proviso it is paid back when they start earning; cultivating dependence and debt bondage, most common among migrant workers in the agricultural sector.
Victims become ‘coerced consumers’, forced into spend wages on accommodation, food, transport and other goods provided by their employer. They are driven deeper into debt, securing funds from family members abroad, or instant loan services.
In other cases, workers will accumulate large amounts of debt, usually with undisclosed premium interest rates, that they cannot repay. They are pushed further into financial dependence and become increasingly susceptible to continued exploitation.
Professor Andrew Crane, Director of the University's Centre for Business, Organisations and Society, said: “At first, the idea of the victims of modern slavery being ‘underworked’ 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? The explanation is that victims are being mercilessly forced into a cycle of debt and exploitation that is extremely difficult to break.
“This research shines a light on the sinister mechanics of how businesses that deploy slavery operate. We think of business innovation as being to the benefit of the environment and society but here is the dark side of business innovation, highlighting the warped business logic of those who profit from exploitation.
“It’s important to understand the business model behind these organisations so that we can follow the money, work out what’s going on and where the weak spots lie, and then deal with them in a more effective way.”
The UK government estimates there are tens of thousands of people in slavery in Britain today. In 2017 over 5,000 people were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery, an increase of a third from 2016.
Previous research by Professor Crane showed that a failure to monitor outsourced recruitment is resulting in companies inadvertently employing victims of modern slavery. Interviews with experts in business, NGOs, trade unions, law firms and the police showed that while companies can increasingly trace where their products come from, many are in the dark about the backgrounds of their staff.
The new study, entitled Innovations in the Business Models of Modern Slavery: The Dark Side of Business Model, was carried out with the University of Sheffield; York University and Simon University, both in Canada; and Monash University, Australia.