When most people think of labor trafficking, they think of modern day slavery. They imagine that if a trafficker were to go to great lengths to secure human beings for illegal labor, they would work them as hard as humanly possible — and often a bit harder than that. This is true, and it happens all over the world, the United States included, but it is not always the case.

A tool that traffickers use for themselves is “debt bondage” which acts a lot like indentured servitude of old. The victim is endowed with a certain amount of debt and told they can work off that debt over a long period of time. They are often worked like slaves to pay this debt (getting paid with fractions of a paycheck, as well as having to pay for their own food and lodging), and will often never realistically pay it off.

However, some traffickers “underwork” their victims.

A system is built to trap the victims into debt bondage — to make them dependent on food, lodging, and other necessities in order to survive on a day-to-day basis, not to mention the need to pay off their debt. They are usually alongside a great number of people, all of which are in the same situation to the same trafficker. Each person there is vying to find work for the day, and sometimes they go a week or two without working. They are struggling just to scrape by, let alone pay any substantial fraction of their debts.

Imagine the group of migrant workers in agriculture, told they owe an employer a debt — the employer could threaten deportation or simply lie and tell them that the police will imprison them for not paying their debts. Or imagine an organized crime element, trapping dock workers in debt bondage and forcing them to pay it off, while only hiring a handful of people every day. These are just a few examples, and many traffickers are in unique situations which make them difficult to spot until many have already been exploited.

The important thing to realize here is that, despite the fact that they are “employing” so many underworked people, the business or persons involved in overseeing these operations are still making a profit overall. These people are usually underfed, their housing situation is barely livable, and the traffickers are making them pay for it all with their own wages, on top of paying off the unpayable debt. The labor they are actually conducting is producing real profits, making the venture a financially viable operation for those who are willing to exploit others for money.

The University of Bath spoke to Professor Andrew Cane from the university’s Centre for Business, Organisations and Society. He said that,

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.