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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.[1] Article 1(a) of the 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". The Convention seeks to abolish the practice. Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery".[2] 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.



Classical antiquity[edit]

Debt bondage was "quite normal" in classical antiquity.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[8]

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.[10]

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.[10]

European Middle Ages[edit]

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,[11] 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.[13]


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[edit]

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.[14]

Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery"[2] 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.[citation needed]

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.[15]

In India, the rise of Dalit activism, government legislation starting as early as 1949,[16] 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.[17][18]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ a b The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay, by Shilpi Gupta
  3. ^ Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, p. 47.
  4. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, pp. 32, 47 et passim.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp. 137, 162.
  7. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 165.
  8. ^ a b Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 169.
  9. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, p. 49.
  10. ^ a b P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 56-57.
  11. ^ Serf. A Dictionary of World History
  12. ^ Cheesman Herrick, White Servitude in Pennsylvania: Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth (New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 26.
  13. ^ Dean, Bartholomew Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8130-3378-5
  14. ^ What is pawnage or pawn slavery? Anti-Slavery Society
  15. ^ Kara, Siddharth (January 2009). Sex Trafficking - Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-13960-1. 
  16. ^ Hart, Christine Untouchability Today: The Rise of Dalit Activism, Human Rights and Human Welfare, Topical Research Digest 2011, Minority Rights
  17. ^ International Dalit Solidarity Network: Key Issues: Bonded Labour
  18. ^ 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]

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Debt Bondage

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46 news items


Tue, 05 Aug 2014 05:00:00 -0700

Even before they leave the Philippines for work abroad, many are already saddled with debt. In most cases, it's due to the high placement fee they are made to pay, which smacks in the face of our government's supposed no-placement fee policy for ...
Motley Fool
Sat, 23 Aug 2014 05:43:43 -0700

It is easy to lose control over your finances, especially if they're in a desperate condition, but listing all your assets and liabilities and making an honest account of what you owe is the first step in regaining freedom from debt bondage. Face your ...

The Maritime Executive

The Maritime Executive
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 19:56:44 -0700

The U.S. Trafficking in Persons 2014 report states that foreign men from Indonesia on board foreign-flagged fishing vessels in New Zealand territorial waters are subjected to forced labor, including through debt bondage, confiscation of passports, ...

Philippine Information Agency

Philippine Information Agency
Sun, 31 Aug 2014 08:56:15 -0700

According to Seneris women are subjected to small scale factory workers, begging, and commercial sex exploitation while men are into debt bondage and forced labor in agriculture, fishing and maritime industry . Seneris said that other forms of ...
h+ Magazine
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 14:22:30 -0700

Do you appreciate being economically hijacked in a downward spiral of debt bondage by these same banks? • Do you still believe that education and raising awareness work? • Do you vote for a reason, or as an excuse? Apart from the last question, no one ...

The Maritime Executive

The Maritime Executive
Tue, 26 Aug 2014 15:41:15 -0700

The total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labor worldwide are estimated to be US$150.2 billion per year. Two thirds of this is generated by forced sexual exploitation, amounting to an estimated US$99 billion per year. Domestic work ...
San Jose Mercury News
Tue, 19 Aug 2014 17:33:08 -0700

SAN JOSE -- With a big-picture goal of better fighting an "appalling and immoral practice," Santa Clara County's Human Trafficking Commission held its inaugural meeting on Tuesday, with about 20 stakeholders gathering to talk about what they do and ...
The Diplomat
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 00:52:30 -0700

More people are slaves through debt-bondage in India than anywhere in the world. Also, there are more prostituted children in India than anywhere else. Sometimes labor and sexual exploitation are interconnected. A person may be trafficked for labor and ...

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