Research on modern slavery and anti-slavery movements seem to have become bogged down in institutional and legal definitions of modern slavery, neglecting ‘the decisive role of circumstantial necessities and perspectives culminating in multiple forms of slavery’ (Brace and Davidson, 2018; Mishra, 2010: 229). The Walk Free Foundation (2016) broadens the definition of ‘slavery’ to ‘situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception’. As noted by Brace and Davidson (2018), this raises questions about what obstacles prevent supposedly free labourers from walking away from exploitative conditions, and how these obstacles transpire in an organisational context. Furthermore, any rigid distinction between free, unfree, and slave makes dynamic understandings of labour relations more challenging (Barrientos et al., 2013). In this vein, Barrientos et al. (2013: 1038) suggest exploring ‘varieties of unfreedom’ to understand labour relations. Responding to this call, this article focuses on how business practices may perpetuate the ‘unfree conditions’ that lead to slavery-driven labour controls at the organisational level. In this regard, scrutinising labour controls may be useful in explaining why slavery persists, despite the rules, norms and practices established to prevent it.

Davidson (2015) argues that modern slavery is framed as an evil external to corporations, rather than as something produced by deliberate corporate strategy driven by the economic system in which these firms operate. This framing of slavery has not been useful for identifying the underlying reasons for slavery-like conditions in contemporary organisations. This article investigates labour controls on tea plantations. These controls were built on the coolie system, a context of restricted freedom, and show how specific types of labour control and labour relations on tea plantations are perpetuating slavery 180 years after the abolition of traditional slavery. The choice of research site lies in the unique context of tea plantations (ILO, 2016; Islam and Al-Amin, 2019). LeBaron (2018) finds that tea planters systematically under-pay wages and under-provide legally-mandated essential services for labourers. Historically, plantations were breeding grounds for slavery (Mohanta, 2008).

This study prompts reflection on how ‘unfree conditions’ in tea plantations give rise to specific means of labour control, which in turn perpetuate slavery on tea plantations. Our study shows that unique production relations on tea plantations create rationalities in labour control practices. For instance, the wage and payment structure, the working hours, and the restrictions of promotion to managerial posts are constant reminders of the historically rooted indentured labour system. Weak trade unions and opaque regulations, coupled with a labour–management relationship rooted in the indentured labour system, results in labourers blindly trusting their managers and perpetuating unfree conditions on tea plantations. Labourers are not constrained to stay, but viewing the plantation as ‘home’ binds them to it (Alawattage and Wickamasinghe, 2008; Bhowmik, 1980).

Historically, colonial lords barred unions from physically entering plantations. Unionisation is allowed in tea plantations, yet labourers’ overt dependence on managers for both employment and homes, and their deep trust in their managers (masters) cultivated by a centuries-long tradition, thwart the effectiveness of any wider labour union movement. Replacement of the manager–labour relationship with the master–slave relationship is critical to trade unions’ ineffectiveness. Under these conditions, managers find it normal to treat labourers as slaves, and embed slavery in labour controls. In this study, two threads are identified that sum up the nature of controls: maximum engagement and determination of wages (incentives).

Tasks are designed to treat labourers as stupid, lazy and sub-human. Working hours are dictated by slave-like conditions, as the labourers must be available from sunrise to sunset. The labourers are perceived as stupid and machine-like, and outcomes are improved through routine jobs. However, tea plantations demand non-routine and uncertain tasks from apparently stupid and machine-like labourers, who are managed through relentless and detailed instructions, as well as constant monitoring.

The incentive system also plays a significant role in keeping the labourers at bay. For instance, the labourers are assured of good remuneration since their package includes housing and food benefits. However, loopholes and lack of clarity in existing regulations and employment contracts allow the company to force female labourers to come to work. Similarly, obscure regulations on accommodation cause entire families to squeeze into one-room houses, no matter their number. Wage cuts are routinely deployed throughout the garden, irrespective of employment contracts, tasks and gender. For instance, permanent labourers receive pay cuts or no pay, either because they have to stop work owing to unavailable materials, or because no work is allocated to them. It is the garden’s practice to make labourers bear the loss entirely out of their already miserly wages. Poor wages and maximum engagement lead the workers into rampant monetary debts to support their daily expenses. These can only be repaid through physical labour, which is extended to their family members.

Tea labourers are allowed to work outside the tea garden, but are unable to do so because they are seen as unemployable. Access to education for their children outside the tea plantation was impossible owing to social and physical isolation. They found themselves in a never-ending cycle of bondage long after the abolition of the indentured system. Labour shortages do not allow managers sufficient latitude to fire employees, but they exert control over labourers’ behaviour by invoking fear of law enforcement agencies’ involvement, threats of underpayment and possible confrontations with managers, thereby maintaining conditions of ‘unfreedom’, as also noted by Kara (2012).

This article contributes to understanding modern slavery in an organisational context and the obstacles that prevent ‘free’ labourers from walking away from exploitative conditions. Organisational sites such as tea plantations clearly show how specific types of labour control restrict freedom of choice and produce ‘willing slaves’ (Davidson, 2015). This study responds to Barrientos et al.’s (2013) call to explore ‘varieties of unfreedom’ to understand how social and economic exclusion through discriminatory labour laws and labour–manager relations rooted in the ‘coolie’ system have built a captive workforce separated from the mainstream workforce. This ultimately produces and reproduces slavery-laden labour controls. As Brace and Davidson (2018) note, understanding underlying reasons for the persistence of slavery helps move the focus back to the economic and social system in which contemporary organisations operate. This article not only invokes the past to frame the present slavery-like conditions in tea gardens, but also highlights how specific types of labour control, aided by regulatory mechanisms, reproduce slave-like conditions in organisations.

Khandakar Shahadat and Shahzad Uddin are joint winners of this year’s SAGE Prize for Innovation/Excellence for their paper, Labour Controls, Unfreedom and Perpetuation of Slavery on a Tea Plantation.

Dr Khandakar Shahadat is a Lecturer in Accounting currently working at the School for Business and Society in the University of York. Shahadat’s research interests are management accounting control, modern slavery, identity, precarious control, and corporate governance. He has published papers on the violations of workers’ rights, government styles in healthcare sector, and accounting reforms in the public sector. Shahadat is also an Academic member of Association of International Accountants and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. Twitter: @Shahadat_KA

Shahzad Uddin is a Professor of Accounting and Director of the Centre for Accountability and Global Development Director at Essex Business School, University of Essex. Shahzad has published on management accounting control, public sector accounting, governance and sustainability in varieties of non-Western organisational and cultural settings. He has published in top accounting, development, sociology and philosophy journals such as Accounting, Organisation and Society, Public Administration, Development and Change, Social Science and Medicine, Work, Employment and Society, and Journal of Critical Realism. For his distinguished contributions, Shahzad has been awarded ‘Distinguished Academic Award 2022’ by the British Accounting and Finance Association (BAFA) and the Labor and Employment Relations Association. Twitter: @ShahzadUd