Worked like slaves? Many forced labour victims 'underworked' in debt bondage trap

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 July 2018 14:55 GMT

Police stand guard at a property in Lambeth, south London November 23, 2013. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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Some people trapped in modern slavery are given little to no work for weeks on end, becoming "coerced customers"

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, July 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of forced labour are not always "worked like slaves" but underworked as slavemasters often take on more workers than they need and profit by charging them for accommodation and food in a cycle of spiralling debt and abuse, British researchers said.

Some people trapped in modern slavery are given little to no work for weeks on end and become "coerced customers" who are deprived of the opportunity of working enough hours to cover the costs of their living expenses, said Britain's Bath University.

This drives modern slaves in Britain deeper into debt - often forcing them to obtain money from relatives abroad or instant loan providers - making it harder to escape enslavement, according to research led by the university's management school.

"This research shines a light on the sinister mechanics of how businesses that deploy slavery operate," Andrew Crane, a professor at Bath University, said in a statement this week.

"Victims are being mercilessly forced into a cycle of debt and exploitation that is extremely difficult to break," added Crane, whose research focused on victims of modern slavery working in the food and construction industries in Britain.

The assumption that victims are "worked like slaves" - an image associated with historical rather than modern slavery - masks the complexity of a trade estimated to enslave about 40 million people worldwide, the university's researchers said.

While many slavemasters and traffickers focus on the profits derived from the work done by their victims - others concentrate on maximising the number of people under their control and money they can make by trapping them in debt bondage, the study said.

At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - trapped in forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.

"Most people would understandably associate modern slavery ... with victims being worked extremely hard over very long hours," said Ian Waterfield of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) - Britain's anti-slavery body.

"And while this is true in many of the cases we investigate, there are other less obvious ways in which criminals exploit their workers, as this research highlights," the GLAA's director of operations told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Modern slavery in Britain - which passed a landmark and world-leading anti-slavery law in 2015 - mainly affects immigrants and vulnerable people, often working at car washes, construction sites, hotels, nail bars and farms, the GLAA says.

Yet many slavery crimes in Britain are committed by families and middle-aged couples leading seemingly respectable lives, academics and activists said earlier this year, confounding the general belief that crime gangs control all slavery operations.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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