Modern Slavery can take many forms: child labor, child marriage, forced prostitution. But no form of exploitation can compare with Debt Bondage (also known as Peonage or Bonded Labor). Debt Bondage has been estimated to account for over half of all cases of forced labor occurring in the private economy, and over 70% of cases in the agricultural, domestic work, and manufacturing sectors. Debt bondage is still common in developing nations such as the UK, and it's not just limited to private economy, either. You may have heard about the government-sponsored debt peonage of former American slaves in a history class or even read about how it still takes place today in American prisons. Let's find out more about the world's most prevalent form of forced labor.
A Brief History of Debt Bondage:
Debt Bondage holds a long-standing and adaptive place in human history, with documented roots all the way back to Ancient Greece and Rome (and it probably took place long before that, too). Because debt bondage has persisted for several millennia in various social and legal contexts, it doesn't happen today the way it always has. In Ancient civilizations the practice was legal and took place openly, and even when it was outlawed in the United States in 1865, it continued to occur in an almost identical fashion until the 1940s. In 1956, the UN called on all nations to abolish debt bondage as a modern form of slavery in an international treaty signed by nearly 100 countries. However, debt bondage has since remained a primary model of modern slavery, and is highly concentrated in South Asia.
Contemporary Forms of Debt Bondage:
Because it is widely outlawed, current practice of debt bondage is more discreet and harder to track, but it is by no means less threatening than it used to be. A worker often becomes indebted before they even begin working for an employer; they might have to pay a high recruitment fee in order to be hired or pay for transportation and/or supplies to do the job. In other cases, families might need to pay medical expenses or borrow $110 to pay for a marriage, initiating a lifetime of crushing debt. Perhaps the most appalling situation is when a child must work their whole life in a futile attempt to pay off the debt of a deceased parent or family member, much like generations of African American children were born into slavery merely because their parents were slaves.
Once the worker acquires an initial debt, it becomes much easier for an employer to exploit them for free or extremely cheap labor. This can be done through employers withholding wages until the debt has been worked off or making threats to a worker's family. But the prospects are much worse for a migrant worker; in addition to the previous methods of exploitation, migrant workers also face having their legal papers withheld or even relying on the employer's good will in order to retain legal status. Migrant workers are also the most likely to find work through labor brokers, who charge the high recruitment fees that often start the exploitative debt cycle to begin with.
If you're not already horrified by the thought of debt bondage, take a look at some of the countless stories about how workers can become trapped in a cycle of debt, even when they're as young as 10 years old. While there are lots of good people fighting to bring attention to and combat this issue, there's lots more work to be done. We can't afford to let the (seeming) rarity of exploited labor in developed countries blind us to the fact that other parts of the world are struggling––often desperately. Eradicating debt bondage around the world is obviously not an easy task, but there's one easy way thing you can do right now, from the comfort of your home, office, or wherever: buy Fair and Ethical Trade.