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Debt bondage


Debt bondage

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

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.[1][2][3] Most countries are parties to the Convention, but the practice is still prevalent in South Asia.[1] Debt bondage in India was legally abolished in 1976 but remains prevalent.

Debt bondage was very common in Ancient Greece. In ancient Athens, Solon forbade taking out loans using oneself as a security and ended such debts.


  • History 1
    • Europe 1.1
      • Classical antiquity 1.1.1
        • Ancient Greece
        • Ancient Rome
      • European Middle Ages 1.1.2
    • Americas 1.2
    • Asia 1.3
  • Current status 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5
    • International legal instruments 5.1



Classical antiquity

Debt bondage was "quite normal" in classical antiquity.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Ancient Greece
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.[7] Both enslavement for debt and debt bondage were practiced in Ptolemaic Egypt.[8] By the Hellenistic period, the limited evidence indicates that debt bondage had replaced outright enslavement for debt.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[9]

Ancient Rome

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.[11]

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.[11]

European Middle Ages

While serfdom under feudalism was the predominant political and economic system in Europe in the High Middle Ages, persisting the Austrian Empire till 1848 and the Russian Empire until 1861 (details),[12] debt bondage (and slavery) provided other forms of unfree labour.


  • During the colonial history of the United States, persons bonded themselves to an owner who paid their passage to the New World. They worked until the debt of passage was paid off, often for years.[13]
  • In Urarina society.[14]


The Indian indenture system was an ongoing system of indenture, based on debt bondage, by which perhaps two million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labour for the (mainly sugar) plantations. It started from the end of slavery in 1833 and continued until 1920.

Current status

According to the Anti-Slavery Society:

Pawnage or pawn slavery is a form of servitude akin to bonded labor under which the debtor provides another human being as security or collateral for the debt. Until the debt (including interest on it) is paid off, the creditor has the use of the labor of the pawn.[15]

Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery"[3] 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.

Researcher Siddharth Kara has calculated the number of slaves in the world by type, and determined that at the end of 2006 there were 18.1 million people subject to debt bondage.[16]


  • ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)
  • ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)
  • ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138)
  • ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)

International legal instruments

  • Human Rights Watch report on Thai women tricked into debt bondage in Japan
  • 1996 Human Rights Watch report on bonded child labor in India
  • Anti-Slavery International
  • Common Language Project article on bonded labor in Pakistan
  • Bonded child labor
  • The ILO Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL)

External links

  • The Cost of Coercion ILO 2009
  • International Labour Office. (2005). A global alliance against forced labour
  • ILO Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World. (2005)
  • Forced Labour: Definition, Indicators and Measurement 2004 - ILO
  • Stopping Forced Labour 2001- ILO
  • Operational Indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings 2009 ILO/SAP-FL
  • Lists of Indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings 2009 ILO/SAP-FL

Organisational Reports

  • Giri, B.R. (2012) ‘The Bonded Labour System in Nepal: Musahar and Tharu Communities’ Assessments of the Haliya and Kamaiya Labour Contracts,’ Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 4(2): 518-551.
  • Giri, B.R. (2010) ‘The Bonded Labour Practice in Nepal: “The Promise of Education” as a Magnet of Child Bondedness?’ South Asia Research, 30(2): 145-64
  • Giri, B.R. (2010) The Haliya and Kamaiya Bonded Child Labourers in Nepal, in G. Craig (ed.), Child Slavery Now, pp.227-241, Bristol (UK): Policy Press.
  • Giri, B.R. (2009) ‘The Bonded Labour System in Nepal: Perspectives of Haliya and Kamaiya Child Workers,’ Journal of Asian and African Studies, 44(6): 599-623.
  • Giri, B.R. (2007) ‘Modern Slavery,’ in: R. Ennals (ed.) From Slavery to Citizenship, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 257–261.
  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ 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. ^ a b The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay, by Shilpi Gupta
  4. ^ Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, p. 47.
  5. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, pp. 32, 47 et passim.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp. 137, 162.
  8. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 165.
  9. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 169.
  10. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, p. 49.
  11. ^ a b P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 56-57.
  12. ^ Serf. A Dictionary of World History
  13. ^ Cheesman Herrick, White Servitude in Pennsylvania: Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth (New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 26.
  14. ^ Dean, Bartholomew Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8130-3378-5
  15. ^ What is pawnage or pawn slavery? Anti-Slavery Society
  16. ^
  17. ^ Hart, Christine Untouchability Today: The Rise of Dalit Activism, Human Rights and Human Welfare, Topical Research Digest 2011, Minority Rights
  18. ^ International Dalit Solidarity Network: Key Issues: Bonded Labour
  19. ^ 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



See also


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