Debt bondage

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Debt bondage (or bonded labour) is when a person pledges him or herself against a loan.[1] In debt bondage, the services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined.[1] Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.[1]

In modern times, debt bondage is most prevalent in South Asia.[1]


[edit] Legal definition

Debt bondage is classically defined as a situation when a person provides a loan to another who uses his or her labor or services to repay the debt; when the value of the work, as reasonably assessed, is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt, the situation becomes one of debt bondage.[citation needed] See United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. This was very common in Ancient Greece. In ancient Athens, Solon forbade taking out loans using oneself as a security and ended any current such debts, ending debt bondage.

[edit] Historical

[edit] Europe

[edit] Classical antiquity

Debt bondage was "quite normal" in classical antiquity.[2] 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.[3] In the Greco-Roman world, debt bondage was a distinct legal category into which free persons 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.[4]

[edit] 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.[5] Both enslavement for debt and debt bondage were practiced in Ptolemaic Egypt.[6] 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.[10]

[edit] 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.[12]

[edit] Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, feudal and serfdom systems became the predominant political and economic systems in Europe.

[edit] Americas

  • American colonies - 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.[citation needed]
  • 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 persons employed and had a prison. Persons were expected to work a minimum of three days a week for their landlord and more if necessary to complete assigned work. Workers were paid a symbolic two cents per year. Workers were unable to travel outside of 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]

[edit] Modern views

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 defined by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery"[15] 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 nations, 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 - 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 the number of debt bondage slaves to be 18.1 million at the end of 2006.[16]

In India the rise of Dalit activism, government legislation starting as early as 1949[17], 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 United Nations International Labour Organization, there are still many obstacles to the eradication of bonded labour in India.[18][19]

[edit] See also


[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d Kevin Bales (2004). New slavery: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 15–18. ISBN 978-1-85109-815-6. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  2. ^ Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, p. 47.
  3. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, pp. 32, 47 et passim.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp. 137, 162.
  6. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 165.
  7. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 165.
  8. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 169.
  9. ^ Raaflaub, The Discovery of Freedom, p. 49.
  10. ^ Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 169.
  11. ^ P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 56-57.
  12. ^ P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 56-57.
  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. ^ The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay, by Shilpi Gupta
  16. ^ Kara, Siddharth (January 2009). Sex Trafficking - Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-13960-1. 
  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

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