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What is Indentured Servitude?

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  • Written By: T. Briseno
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Indentured servitude is a system of exchanging a period of time and labor for needs such as food, housing, property, or money at the end of service. While slavery is generally known to be using an individual for labor or services against the individual’s will, indentured servitude has typically involved a contract and exchange of work for goods needed by the worker. Though historically a length of servitude could be within three to seven years, this service time may vary depending on terms and location internationally.

Indentured servitude dates back thousands of years when men could trade years of work for the promise of gaining a landowner’s daughter at the end of their service. In the history of colonizing new regions, indentured servitude met a need in the development of emerging economies. Settlers and colonizers needed help establishing roots with agriculture and homesteads, and many who left their homelands needed jobs. These servants came alongside the settlers and were worked very hard in most cases, but at the end of their contracted time, they often were awarded their own plots of land or goods with which to establish roots of their own.

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While the practice of indentured servitude can have a purpose and use, it also may be a means of exploitation and abuse. Cases of children being traded into indentured servitude can lead to lifelong slavery for the child. Some laborers work the land in exchange for housing and food but are generally not given a means to fulfill their terms of service as costs for caring for themselves or families are unfairly added by their employers. Other workers may complete a contracted term without receiving the promised compensation.

Some modern forms of indentured servitude resemble the characteristics of slavery. Internationally, individuals seeking work outside of the economically challenged places where they live may be promised work, housing, and income in another city or country. Once the workers arrive to the destination, they may receive the work and substandard living conditions, but their identification papers and basic freedoms may be withheld indefinitely by those who claimed to be employers. This practice has been widespread in the sex trades as young women and men are traded or tricked into servitude far from home. Promises of an indentured servitude arrangement may lead from one form of poverty to another, with no contract or end of contract in sight.

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