Debt bondage

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Debt bondage, also known as debt slavery or bonded labor, is a person's pledge of labor or services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation.[1] The services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined.[2] Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.[2]

Currently, debt bondage is the most common method of enslavement with an estimated 8.1 million people bonded to labor illegally as cited by the International Labour Organization in 2005.[3] Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery" and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery seeks to abolish the practice.[2][4][5] Most countries are parties to the Convention, but the practice is still prevalent in many countries, particularly in South Asia.[4]



Though the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 by the International Labour Organization, which included 187 parties, sought to bring organized attention to eradicating slavery through forms of forced labor, formal opposition to debt bondage in particular came at the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery in 1956.[1][2] The convention in 1956[2] defined debt bondage under Article 1, section (a):

"Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined;"[2]

When a pledge to provide services to pay off debt is made by an individual, the employer often illegally inflates interest rates at an unreasonable amount, making it impossible for the individual to leave bonded labor.[6] When the bonded laborer dies, debts are often passed on to children.[6][7]

Usage of term[edit]

Although debt bondage, forced labour, and human trafficking are all defined as forms or variations of slavery, each term is distinct.[1][8][9] Debt bondage differs from forced labour and human trafficking in that a person consciously pledges to work as a means of repayment of debt without being placed into labor against will.[1][8]

Debt bondage only applies to individuals who have no hopes of leaving the labor due to inability to ever pay debt back.[1][6] Those who offer their services to a repay a debt and the employer reduces the debt accordingly are not in debt bondage.[1][6]



In the 19th century, people in Asia in need of money consisted of farmers mortgaging harvests to men borrowing for a bride's dowry to drug addicts' need for opium in China.[10] When a natural disaster occurred or food was scarce, people willingly chose debt bondage as a means to a secure life.[10] In the early 20th century in Asia, most laborers tied to debt bondage had been born into it. In certain regions such as in Burma debt bondage was far more common than slavery.[10] Many went into bondage to pay off interest on a loan or to pay taxes,[11] and as they worked, often on farms, lodging, meals, and clothing fees were added to the existing debt causing overall debt and interest to accrue. These continued added costs made leaving servitude hopeless.[10]

After the development of the international economy, more workers were needed for the pre-industrial economies of Asia during the 19th century.[10] A greater demand for labor was needed in Asia to power exports to growing industrial countries like America and Germany.[10] Cultivation of cash crops like coffee, cocoa, and sugar and exploitation of minerals like gold and tin led farm owners to search for individuals in need of loans in hopes of keeping laborers permanently.[12] In particular, the Indian indenture system was based on debt bondage by which an estimated two million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labor for plantations.[10] It started from the end of slavery in 1833 and continued until 1920.[10]

Map of Africa


Important to both East and West Africa, pawnship, defined as the use of people in transferring their rights for settlement of debt, was common during the 17th century.[13] The system of pawnship occurred simultaneously with the slave trade in Africa.[14] Though the export of slaves from Africa to the Americas is often analyzed, slavery was rampant internally as well.[13] Development of plantations like those in Zanzibar in East Africa reflected the need for internal slaves.[10][13] Further, many of the slaves that were exported were generally male as brutal and labor-intensive conditions favored the male physique.[10] This created gender implications for individuals in the pawnship system as more women were pawned than men and often sexually exploited.[10]

After the abolition of slavery in many countries in the 19th century, Europeans still needed laborers.[14] Moreover, conditions for emancipated slaves were harsh.[10][14] The labor market was discriminatory and a sustainable income for many former slaves was tough.[10] Because of these conditions, many freed slaves preferred to live through slavery-like contracts with their masters in a manner similar to debt bondage.[14]


Classical antiquity[edit]

Debt bondage was "quite normal" in classical antiquity.[15] The poor or those who had fallen irredeemably in debt might place themselves into bondage "voluntarily"—or more precisely, might be compelled by circumstances to choose debt bondage as a way to anticipate and avoid worse terms that their creditors might impose on them.[16] In the Greco-Roman world, debt bondage was a distinct legal category into which a free person might fall, in theory temporarily, distinguished from the pervasive practice of slavery, which included enslavement as a result of defaulting on debt. Many forms of debt bondage existed in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome.[17]

Ancient Greece[edit]
Portrait bust of Solon (from a later period).

Debt bondage was widespread in ancient Greece. The only city-state known to have abolished it is Athens, as early as the Archaic period under the debt reform legislation of Solon.[18] Both enslavement for debt and debt bondage were practiced in Ptolemaic Egypt.[19] By the Hellenistic period, the limited evidence indicates that debt bondage had replaced outright enslavement for debt.[19]

The most onerous debt bondage was various forms of paramonē, "indentured labor." As a matter of law, a person subjected to paramonē was categorically free, and not a slave, but in practice his freedom was severely constrained by his servitude.[20] Solon's reforms occurred in the context of democratic politics at Athens that required clearer distinctions between "free" and "slave"; as a perverse consequence, chattel slavery increased.[21]

The selling of one's own child into slavery is likely in most cases to have resulted from extreme poverty or debt, but strictly speaking is a form of chattel slavery, not debt bondage. The exact legal circumstances in Greece, however, are far more poorly documented than in ancient Rome.[20]

Ancient Rome[edit]
Main article: Nexum

Nexum was a debt bondage contract in the early Roman Republic. Within the Roman legal system, it was a form of mancipatio. Though the terms of the contract would vary, essentially a free man pledged himself as a bond slave (nexus) as surety for a loan. He might also hand over his son as collateral. Although the bondsman might be subjected to humiliation and abuse, as a legal citizen he was supposed to be exempt from corporal punishment. Nexum was abolished by the Lex Poetelia Papiria in 326 BC, in part to prevent abuses to the physical integrity of citizens who had fallen into debt bondage.

Roman historians illuminated the abolition of nexum with a traditional story that varied in its particulars; basically, a nexus who was a handsome but upstanding youth suffered sexual harassment by the holder of the debt. In one version, the youth had gone into debt to pay for his father's funeral; in others, he had been handed over by his father. In all versions, he is presented as a model of virtue. Historical or not, the cautionary tale highlighted the incongruities of subjecting one free citizen to another's use, and the legal response was aimed at establishing the citizen's right to liberty (libertas), as distinguished from the slave or social outcast.[22]

Cicero considered the abolition of nexum primarily a political maneuver to appease the common people (plebs): the law was passed during the Conflict of the Orders, when plebeians were struggling to establish their rights in relation to the hereditary privileges of the patricians. Although nexum was abolished as a way to secure a loan, debt bondage might still result after a debtor defaulted.[22]

European Middle Ages[edit]

While serfdom under feudalism was the predominant political and economic system in Europe in the High Middle Ages, persisting in the Austrian Empire till 1848 and the Russian Empire until 1861 (details),[23] debt bondage (and slavery) provided other forms of unfree labour.


For more details on indentured servitude in the American colonies, see Indentured servant.
  • In Peru a peonage system existed from the 16th century until land reform in the 1950s. One estate in Peru that existed from the late 16th century until it ended had up to 1,700 people employed and had a prison. They were expected to work for their landlord a minimum of three days a week and more if necessary to complete assigned work. Workers were paid a symbolic two cents per year. Workers were unable to travel outside their assigned lands without permission and were not allowed to organise any independent community activity. In the Peruvian Amazon, debt peonage is an important aspect of contemporary Urarina society.[25]

Modern Practice[edit]

Though the figures differ from those of the International Labour Organization, researcher Siddharth Kara has calculated the number of slaves in the world by type, and determined that at the end of 2011 there were 18 to 20.5 million bonded laborers.[26] Bonded laborers work in industries today that produce goods including but not limited to frozen shrimp, bricks, tea, coffee, diamonds, marble, and apparel.[26]

South Asia[edit]

Although India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh all have laws prohibiting debt bondage, it is estimated by Siddharth Kara that 84 to 88% of the bonded laborers in the world are in South Asia.[26] Figures by the Human Rights Watch in 1999 are drastically higher estimating 40 million workers, composed mainly of children, are tied to labor through debt bondage in India alone.[27][28]

Brick kilns[edit]

Child Labor in Brick Kilns in South Asia

Research by Siddharth Kara estimates there to be between 55,000 and 65,000 brick kilns in South Asia with 70% of them in India.[26] Other research estimates 6,000 kilns in Pakistan alone.[29] Total revenue from brick kilns in South Asia is estimated by Siddharth Kara to be $13.3 to $15.2 billion.[26] Many of the brick kiln workers are migrants and travel between brick kiln locations every few months.[26][29] Kiln workers often live in extreme poverty and many began work at kilns through repayment of a starting loan averaging $150 to $200.[26] Kiln owners offer "friendly loans" laborers to avoid being criminalized in breaking bonded labor laws.[29] Bonded brick kiln laborers, including children, work in harsh and unsafe conditions as the heat from the kiln may cause heat stroke and a number of other medical conditions.[29][30] Although these laborers do have the option to default on loans, there is fear of death and violence by brick kiln owners if they choose to do so.[29]



The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that $51.2 billion dollars is made annually in the exploitation of workers through debt bondage.[31]

Policy Initiatives[edit]

The United Nations[edit]

Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery"[5] and is prohibited by international law. It is specifically dealt with by article 1(a) of the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. It persists nonetheless especially in developing countries, which have few mechanisms for credit security or bankruptcy, and where fewer people hold formal title to land or possessions. According to some economists, for example Hernando de Soto, this is a major barrier to development in those countries because, for example, entrepreneurs do not dare take risks and cannot get credit because they hold no collateral and may burden families for generations to come.

India Dalit Activism[edit]

In India, the rise of Dalit activism, government legislation starting as early as 1949,[32] as well as ongoing work by NGOs and government offices to enforce labour laws and rehabilitate those in debt, appears to have contributed to the reduction of bonded labour there. However, according to research papers presented by the International Labour Organization, there are still many obstacles to the eradication of bonded labour in India.[33][34]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Jordan, Ann (February 2011). "SLAVERY, FORCED LABOR, DEBT BONDAGE, AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING: FROM CONCEPTIONAL CONFUSION TO TARGETED SOLUTIONS" (PDF). Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor. Washington College of Law: Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Article 1(a) of the United Nations' 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery defines debt bondage as "the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined".
  3. ^ "Global Report on Forced Labour In Asia: debt bondage, trafficking and state-imposed forced labour". Promoting Jobs, Protecting People. International Labour Organization. 2005. 
  4. ^ a b Kevin Bales (2004). New slavery: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 15–18. ISBN 978-1-85109-815-6. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  5. ^ a b The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay, by Shilpi Gupta
  6. ^ a b c d von Lilienfeld-Toal, Ulf; Mookherjee, Dilip (August 1, 2010). "The Political Economy of Debt Bondage". American Economic Journal: Microeconomics. American Economic Association. 2 (3). 
  7. ^ Androff, D.K. "The problem of contemporary slavery: An international human rights challenge for social work". International Social Work. Social Sciences Index. 54 (2). 
  8. ^ a b "Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers around the World" (PDF). Human Rights Watch. 2006.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  9. ^ Weitzer, Ronald. "Human Trafficking and Contemporary Slavery". Annual Review Of Sociology. Business Source Complete. 41 (1). 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Campbell, Gwyn; Stanziani, Alessandro (2013). Bonded Labour and debt in the Indian Ocean World. Pickering & Chatto. ISBN 9781848933781. 
  11. ^ Kaarsholm, Preben (2016). "Indian Ocean Networks and the Transmutations of Servitude: The Protector of Indian Immigrants and the Administration of Freed Slaves and Indentured Labourers in Durban in the 1870s". Journal Of Southern African Studies. Humanities Source. 42 (3). 
  12. ^ Vink, Marcus (2014). "Indian Ocean Debt Slavery". Journal Of African History. 55 (3). 
  13. ^ a b c Wilks, I. (1988). "Pawnship in Africa. Debt bondage in historical perspective". African Economic History. 26. 
  14. ^ a b c d Brown, Carolyn; van der Linden, Marcel (2010). "Shifting Boundaries between Free and Unfree Labor: Introduction". International Labor & Working-Class History. 78 (1). 
  15. ^ Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, p. 47.
  16. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, pp. 32, 47 et passim.
  17. ^ G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 136–137, noting that economic historian Moses Finley maintained "serf" was an incorrect term to apply to the social structures of classical antiquity.
  18. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp. 137, 162.
  19. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 165.
  20. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 169.
  21. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, p. 49.
  22. ^ a b P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 56-57.
  23. ^ "Serf". Retrieved 11 June 2016. 
  24. ^ Cheesman Herrick, White Servitude in Pennsylvania: Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth (New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 26.
  25. ^ Dean, Bartholomew Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8130-3378-5
  26. ^ a b c d e f g Kara, Siddharth (2012). Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231158480. 
  27. ^ "Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry". Human Rights Watch. January 23, 2003. 
  28. ^ Finn, Devin. "Bonded Labor in India" (PDF). HUMAN RIGHTS & HUMAN WELFARE. 
  29. ^ a b c d e Ercelawn, A; Nauman, M (2004). "Unfree Labour in South Asia: Debt Bondage at Brick Kilns in Pakistan". Economic and Political Weekly. Economic and Political Weekly. 39 (22). 
  30. ^ Madheswaran, S.; Paik, Saswati (2010). "Labour Vulnerability and Debt Bondage in Contemporary India". Journal Of Social And Economic Development. Business Insights. 2. 
  31. ^ "How profitable is the exploitation of people? Sadly, extraordinarily so.". International Labour Organization. 28 May 2014. 
  32. ^ Hart, Christine Untouchability Today: The Rise of Dalit Activism, Human Rights and Human Welfare, Topical Research Digest 2011, Minority Rights
  33. ^ International Dalit Solidarity Network: Key Issues: Bonded Labour
  34. ^ Ravi S. Srivastava Bonded Labor in India: Its Incidence and Pattern InFocus Programme on Promoting the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work; and International Labour Office,(2005). Forced Labor. Paper 18

Organisational Reports

External links[edit]

International legal instruments[edit]