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What is Debt Bondage?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Debt bondage is a form of unfree labor in which a laborer is indebted and uses the labor to pay off the debt. Also known as bonded labor or debt slavery, debt bondage is a significant problem worldwide. It is possible for multiple generations of a family to be enslaved by debt bondage and it can be very difficult for victims to free themselves.

The origins of debt bondage are ancient. Numerous cultures have had versions of feudal, indentured, or peonage systems in which people of a lower social class are enslaved by employers through the use of debt. In debt bondage, a worker is promised opportunities in exchange for a small debt which can be worked off. It is not uncommon for misleading tactics to be used, such as a claim that a month of labor will work off the debt, at which point the laborer can go free. Once the laborer is under contract, the employer can abuse the terms and potentially keep the laborer in bondage for life.

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Domestically, debt bondage is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia. Bonded laborers incur debt for housing, food, clothing, and medical expenses, in addition to fees for failing to complete work on time or for making mistakes. Laborers cannot work the debt off because it grows increasingly larger. In addition, they are not allowed to work for other employers, ensuring that they cannot earn money to repay their debt by working elsewhere. A person in bondage who wishes to marry and start a family will be charged fees for doing this as well, increasing the debt and also providing the employer with more laborers in the form of spouses and children.

It is also possible to see debt bondage linked with human trafficking. In such cases, people are promised opportunities in a new country. They are often lied to about the nature of the work that they will be doing. They accept a loan from the person who makes the arrangements and are charged for travel documents, traveling costs, food, water, and other necessities. When they arrive in a new country, they are told that they must work off their debt and they quickly learn that the debt will take much longer than expected to be repaid.

In human trafficking cases, people in debt bondage may not even know which nation they have been taken to. They do not speak the language and thus cannot seek assistance from the people they encounter. Such laborers may also be confined to keep authorities and advocates for workers' rights ignorant of their existence.

While not as common as is sometimes suggested in the media, debt bondage can also be linked with sex slavery. Some people may enter careers in prostitution because they believe that they may provide an opportunity, while others may be tricked with promises of working as cleaners or agricultural laborers. Once imprisoned by an “employer,” there is no choice but to work.

Addressing debt bondage is a complicated issue. In some nations, castes and other social stratifications make it challenging to confront unfree labor practices. In human trafficking cases, trying to track and help people without identities can be frustrating for regulatory authorities.

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anon302973
Post 2

This is modern day slavery disguised under the illusion of freedom, as Marx would say. These problems are very hard to tackle if the government ever intends upon addressing such issues in the first place specially in countries like southeast Asia. It's a structural issue, which nonetheless should be eliminated so as to ensure that such practices do not become the norms of society, enslaving people and diminishing their life to mere existence.

anon117679
Post 1

Debt bondage is alive and well, and thriving in the USA trucking industry! Companies train the drivers (starving them to the point that when training is over they are told it will take months to get them the company truck that they were promised, and they'll have to repeat part of the training again, and pay again) OR start driving tomorrow by leasing a truck.

then the company makes money but the driver makes barely enough to live on. The driver pays tolls on the company freight and most times are not paid for all the miles they travel, but miles according to postal codes which are sometimes 30 miles lower than actual miles traveled. driver pays all fuel and

maintenance on "lemons" they are forced to drive, and then the company cuts their miles till they agree to train.

The US government is fully aware and does nothing. The companies keep these slaves so poor they don't dare say anything because their miles will be cut and their records could be tainted by these companies, then they will never get another job.

I know whole families who have lost everything to this practice. Families who have lost homes and are living in these trucks, even lost their children because they could no longer feed them.

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