Debt Bondage

A man in debt is so far a slave. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Debt bondage is the most frequent ploy used to control victims of both labor and sex trafficking. It is especially common in the exploitation of agricultural workers. People are lured with promises of economic opportunity. Victims are often fed directly into a migrant labor camp where they are relieved of any identification documents and shut off from all contact with the outside world. It is rigged so that their initial debt, plus their cost of living ‘debt’, food and rent, will always exceed their meager wages and the ‘debt’ will mount. They may be charged for the use of the very tools needed to do their jobs, for transport to the job site, even for drinking water or the use of toilet facilities. Sanitary conditions are as appalling as you might imagine. Health and safety are not the concern of traffickers. ‘Fines’ are imposed for arbitrary infractions and added to a worker’s so-called debt. But the illusion is maintained that the worker is being paid even if they never actually see any money. This helps for some time in keeping victims compliant.

Often poorly educated or illiterate, these foreign workers have no recourse. They may speak only their native language. They commonly have only the vaguest notion of their actual location. They are made acutely aware of their illegal status, warned of being beaten and imprisoned if found by the authorities. Families in the countries of origin may be threatened as a means of ensuring continued cooperation. Victims are effectively slave labor, treated as so much human meat, just like other victims of human traffickers.

In many poor countries children may be sold into bondage as settlement of a debt. Indeed, debt may transcend generations so that children may be essentially enslaved to continue paying off the debts incurred by their parents or more distant relatives. In some countries, notably India and Pakistan, debt bondage may ensnare entire families and even entire villages. In rural India, over the past ten years, nearly 200,000 farmers laboring under this cruel kind of debt have committed suicide. Filled with shame and despair at being unable to feed their family and meet their debt obligations, many swallow poison to escape the web of debt. This story was detailed in the poignant documentary Nero’s Guests by Deepa Bhatia. It follows committed activist and journalist P. Sainath as he speaks and writes about this underreported issue. The title is drawn from a story Sainath relates:

‘(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.’
Tacitus (Roman historian and official, c.58 to 115 C.E.) The Annals, Book XV, C.E. 62-65

It was talking to Lewis Lapham that sent me back to Tacitus. We had looked at the mindset that extreme inequality breeds. The editor of Harpers pointed to Nero’s garden parties, the lighting for which he provided by setting aflame human beings.
Now we do know that Nero was mad. (Unlike some of his saner predecessors who routinely fed thousands of human beings to animals at the Coliseum.) So this sort of conduct, while shocking, was not surprising. Much later, the Nazis did worse. History has many contenders for cruelty’s crown.
More interesting was the conduct of Nero’s guests. Rome’s elite prominent amongst them. What sort of sensibility did it require to pop another fig into your mouth as one more human being went up in flames nearby to serve as ‘a nightly illumination?’ For the party to go on, singing and dancing, as the spectacle unfolded?

Tacitus doesn’t say.

But Sainath pointedly asks the question. In the world today, who are Nero’s guests? Who can stand by and witness gross injustice without crying out? How can we close our eyes to evidence of exploitation and suffering that surround us?

No one in this country need travel far to find victims of debt bondage. Whether in rural agricultural settings, or crammed into urban dwellings taking turns sleeping in shifts stacked like cord wood, victims trapped in debt bondage surround us. Many trafficked urban workers are right here in New York City, thousands of souls toiling, mostly in the non-union restaurant, garment, and construction industries. Some in nail salons and beauty parlors. Even street peddlers may be victims of these operations. Many more workers are routed to farms and fields joining the other migrant laborers who harvest our bounty.

A recent theme for a U.S. government campaign to raise awareness about human trafficking was “Look Beneath the Surface“. It illustrated that victims are all around us in all walks of life. Average citizens can learn how to recognize and report this abuse and can take actions that will ensure we are not simply acting with the passive self-absorption of Nero’s guests.

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To join us in action and discussion please visit
Meetup.com/Fight-Slavery-Now

TO REPORT AN INSTANCE OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING, DIAL 1-888-3737-888
OR CALL YOUR LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT/DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!

4 Responses to “Debt Bondage”

  1. ghulam hyder Says:

    Green Rural Development Organization struggling against debt bondage and human trafficing in agriculture and brick kilns in Sindh province of Pakistan. During our struggle of last 10 years we have been able to get some 10 thousand bonded workers freed, have supported a number of them to get alternate jobs, supported to get citizenship documents, supported to get enrolled as voters, more than1000 families got residential plots, 700 children got basic literacy through our community schools arranged skill development training, potable drinking water exposure visits for released workers, and several other actvities and achievements. One of our volunteers Mrs Veero kolhi won Frederic Douglass freedom award 2009. She recieved the award from Free the Slaves in LA, USA.

  2. ghulam hyder Says:

    More than 1.7 million people are facing slavery (bonded labor ) in pakistan mostly in agriculture and brick kiln industry. They are working as slaves against meager amounts they have taken as advance from their employer’s. A large number of them working to pay off the debts they inhereted from their parents. In some cases we have observed that infleuntial employers keep worker under forced labour just to avoid to pay the dues of workers. Though Pakistan govt. has ratified international laws and outlawed bonded labor in country in 1992, but situation is going bad to worse due to non-implementation of laws.

    • fightslaverynow Says:

      We are honored to hear from someone who has led the fight not only to free slaves, but to address the underlying conditions that led to their bondage. The work of GRDO is an inspiration. We will be adding more content to highlight the way debt bondage operates in other parts of the world, particularly South Asia, where entire families, even entire communities are pressed into bonded labor for debt that may carry across generations.
      Best of luck in continuing your important work. We have been unable to link to your website and would appreciate that information to let more people know about your efforts.

  3. Debt Bondage: When a Person Becomes Security for a Debt « Modern Injustice Says:

    […] https://fightslaverynow.org/why-fight-there-are-27-million-reasons/labortrafficking/debt-bondage/ […]

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