Our Perennial War, Part IV

Indentured servants in 19th Century Limerick, Ireland

Indentured Servitude, or Debt Bondage

In the last three posts I took a look at the history of labor struggles, at home and abroad, and about two of the methods used to control workers, propaganda and so-called scientific management. Today let’s look at another tool the bosses use, indentured servitude, also known as debt bondage. You may have read about it in the history of colonial America. Supposedly this form of exploitation disappeared a couple of centuries ago. Fat chance—it’s back, in a variety of new mutations.

The Bad Old Days

Debt bondage was common in the ancient world. After a drought or other crop failure, a poor peasant borrowed seed or food from a rich landowner, and later found himself unable to pay the debt. He would have to sell himself—or his children—as slaves to the wealthier man.

Lawgivers made some attempts to regulate this practice. Per the code of Hammurabi, written in the 18th Century BCE, debt service was for three years, and the indentured person went free in the fourth. Later laws, enacted in the Middle Assyrian period (14th to 10th Centuries BCE), were harsher. They allowed indentured servants to be bought and sold and even reduced to chattel slavery.

The Torah specifies that a Hebrew man who enters such bondage has to work for six years and goes free in the seventh. If he brings a wife with him, she leaves with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears children, he leaves alone and the woman and children remain the property of the master (Exodus 21:2-4). Non-Hebrews could be bought and sold and bequeathed to one’s heirs as property (Leviticus 25:44-46). But even these harsh rules were too much for some greedy landowners. According to the Prophet Amos, who lived in the 8th Century BCE, they cheated buyers with dishonest scales and bought “the poor with silver/and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

Poor Europeans indentured themselves to come to colonial America, generally to escape debt and poverty. They worked four years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging, and freedom dues. Convicts transported by their governments were sold to masters on arrival and worked seven years. Eventually, with demands for even cheaper labor, indentured servants were replaced by enslaved Africans. Leviticus 25:44-46 and other Biblical texts were used to justify Black slavery.

In more recent times, employers devised another form of debt bondage, via the company store. The first recorded company store was on a sugar plantation opened on Kauai in 1835. Similar stores sprang up across the United States and in Mexico during the 19th Century, in towns with a single employer: a factory, plantation, or mine. Workers were paid in scrip which could only be exchanged for merchandise at the store the company owned. Since wages were kept low and prices for goods inflated, workers found themselves in ever-increasing debt, obligated to remain on the job until they’d paid it off. In the United States, with changes in the law and the mining industry, very few such stores remain.

Modern Methods

In the 1950s, a new method of indenture was developed overseas. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “The kafala, or sponsorship, system gives private citizens and companies in Jordan, Lebanon, and most Arab Gulf countries almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status…” Immigrants could expect low wages, exploitive working conditions, racial discrimination, and what the Council calls gender-based violence—meaning rape and beatings of domestic workers.

Then there’s the non-compete clause, first documented in England in 1414, which prohibits employees from quitting their jobs and taking their skills to another company or starting businesses of their own. It was subsequently outlawed, as being in restraint of trade, but has been enjoying a contemporary comeback. Workers at all levels, from physician to hairdresser to dog walker, have been required to sign contracts containing non-compete clauses as a condition of employment. Only five states ban such agreements. Per the Federal Trade Commission, non-competes suppress wages and result in workers losing nearly $300 billion per year.

A more recent development, at least in the United States, is the “stay or pay” clause. If you quit your job within a certain number of years, you have to reimburse the employer for all costs of hiring and training—and some employers have been known to demand wildly inflated amounts.

These clauses used to be required only for highly skilled occupations such as airline pilot or software engineer, but are now being enforced against all kinds of workers, such as bank tellers, dog groomers, and metal polishers.

One of my wife’s friends endured another form of indentured servitude. A furniture company in Beaverton, OR hired her as a salesperson and gave her some minimal training in interior design. In return she was compelled to work many months without pay, thus depleting her savings and leaving her impoverished.

What If You Just Walk?

If you’ve signed a non-compete and then quit, it would be hard to find a similar position in the local area. You’d have to relocate—not easy if you have children and/or have put down roots, but at least some workers can do that. What about “stay or pay?” If more workers walked off the job and refused to submit to this form of extortion, what would the bosses do? Put a lien on your home, if you have one? Bring back debtors’ prisons?

I wouldn’t put it past them.

To be continued…

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.