When speaking about modern slavery in Asia we have often been asked:

“If they don’t like their job, why don’t they just leave?”

This question highlights one of the most common misconceptions around modern slavery and forced labour in supply chains, that if the constraints on freedoms cannot be physically seen then they must not exist.

The truth is these people are not usually being held in place by shackles and chains, they may be free to go home to their families each day after work, they may not be beaten each day by the employer, they may have voluntarily walked into this job or even paid a recruiter for the privilege of working. Why would someone in forced labour in supply chains continue to work for an employer who exploits them or who takes their wages? Why would they not simply leave?

Unfortunately, modern slavery has its own challenges. The answer is debt. Debt is one of the most fundamental global drivers of modern slavery in Asia and around the world today. This hidden prison entraps millions of workers into a form of bonded labour that is oppressive, suffocating, and incredibly challenging to escape. 

Image by Frantisek Krejci from Pixabay

This debt is often initiated during the recruitment period itself and is perpetuated by the common practice of recruitment fee payments by workers wishing to gain employment in oversaturated industries. Recruitment fees may be charged by recruitment agencies, the brokers that they employ to source workers, or even by the employers themselves. In many countries this practice is entirely legal, and, in some industries, it is so commonplace that workers are mistrustful of job offerings that do not include recruitment fee requirements. Workers victimized into modern slavery often willingly pay these fees especially for jobs where there are many others seeking the same kind of employment. Recruitment fees are particularly prevalent amongst migrant workers seeking low-skilled, low-wage jobs such as in factories, construction, domestic work, or agriculture. As such, forced labour in supply chains persists.

While these fees may be technically legal in many cases, unscrupulous actors may charge excessive fees or hide fees within the process that may lead the workers to take on debt to make the payments. Often these loans are offered by the agencies, employers, or related unregulated money lenders and may have staggeringly high interest rates. Exploiters prey on the desperation of their victims for work and a lack of financial literacy, as well as deception and lies to bring the person under their financial control, resulting in a modern slavery  situation. 

Once the workers are indebted, they quickly find themselves working to clear their debts. This can very quickly become a cycle of exploitation where they do not receive the wages that they expected, are charged more hidden fees and costs, and must even take on more debts simply to survive. They are no longer working to thrive and provide for their families. They are working simply to tread water in a rising tide of debt and abuse. They have no choice but to continue. This highly effective method of control is used on millions of workers across a multitude of industries in the world today. In the most extreme cases, this debt can transcend generations as these unregulated debts are passed from parents to children with no end in sight from a modern slavery cycle. 

Through our work addressing modern slavery in Asia and around the world, the link between debts and forced labour in supply chains is clear. Addressing how workers fall into debt during the recruitment process will be one of the key pillars if society is to end modern slavery for good.

Author: Phoebe Ewen