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By Any Other Name: Involuntary Servitude

Updated on June 18, 2014

Working Without Pay

Over the course of human history there is a consistent theme. Obviously it is not totally consistent in every culture but it seems to frequently pop up. The idea of having people toil for free for the benefit of others Is too tempting to pass up. To have others work for no personal benefit or pay. To be in a situation of involuntary servitude means you are doing labor against your will. All through the ages we see this. In earlier times it was almost universally accepted. Still now in our enlightened times we cannot get rid of it.

Unfree Labor

The ancient societies had various levels of slaves and servants that takes awhile to describe. Some worked the land, some did personal duties. Many were skilled in certain trades. Some could buy their freedom others could not.

Apprenticeship- this is a system where minors or adults would work with someone who would teach them a craft or skill. They would be bound for a number of years until they reached full mastery level where they would be competent and skilled enough to strike out on their own. Historically they were legally bound to their employer by contract in a form of indenture.

Children would be sold to employers by poor parents in the hope of them learning an occupation.

Pauper apprentice was a term used for children sold to mills and mines by workhouses and orphanages. These children worked in many instances under deplorable conditions for little or no pay.

In places where slavery was being repealed an unlimited or very long term apprenticeship was used to keep these people in a form of bondage.

Debt Bondage- This form of servitude is universal and has a long history. People deemed to owe a debt could be sold into bondage until the debt was satisfied. Those in extended families could pick another member to fulfill this obligation. The original debt might be years old and the original debtor might be long dead. The descendents would be suffering for decades from this.

Workers on ships, plantations, mill and mining towns were kept in place by this type of system. The people were never paid in legal tender but in script or some other funny money. Everything that would be needed could only be bought at the company store at exorbitant rates. This would keep the people at their locations and they would not be allowed to leave. Their pay check would automatically go to pay down their debt then they would need to run a tab for new provisions there by keeping themselves in debt in perpetuity.

This was another slavery extender. After slavery repeal, former slaves would still be kept in bondage under this system. The paperwork would have them getting paid yet owing the "employee" a debt that needed to be payed (forever).

Convict Labor- Using people convicted of a crime for profit. The person could be leased out to private business or used to work on government projects. Sometimes it would be so profitable their prison time would be extended due to one excuse or another. Vagrancy laws were used by jurisdictions to gather up unsuspecting people in order to do free labor in public and private businesses.

Prisoner of War- Go to war and take the people who are captured and sell them or put them to work to make a profit.

Conscription- Is when the state makes it's citizens do some sort of public service sometimes without pay and sometimes without end. This is a very ancient system that was used partly to build the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall and the terracotta soldiers of Qin in China.

It is used in times of war to form armies sometimes called a draft. Some countries had compulsory military service that lasted decades. Young men would immigrate to avoid service others would take on identities of older relatives in an attempt to avoid going into the military. In England there were gangs called press gangs who could legally grab any man they happened upon and pressed him into service for the British Royal Navy. They would usually go after known seaman but not necessarily. They could also board merchant ships to take and impress any merchant seamen into the military ship. In turn, the merchant ships would need to get men to replenish their ships.

Child labor- Children have been used as cheap labor since antiquities. They are easier to manipulate and subjugate. Youngsters are involved in all the different types of bondage that existed and still exists. They are sold as out and out slaves to work in dangerous situations and die due to this.

In times of conquest they are taken from their parents and formed military divisions for their conquerors. They were bought from orphanages and workhouses to toil in cruel conditions that stunted their mental and physical development under the guise of apprenticeship. Contracts signed by them were legally binding which could keep them in this situation for many years. A parent or guardian could contract them out legally for many years. They are still used to pay off debts and placed in brothels, mines, mills and private homes to work endlessly.

Shanghai -Men going about their business would be kidnapped or tricked by thugs called crimps in the U.S. and find themselves aboard merchant ships. Their names would be forged and they would be forced to work until the end of the voyage which could be years. Certain maritime laws made this easier to do. Seaman would not get paid until the voyage was over, they were not allowed to run from the ship under penalty of prison or worse. Also if they did not finish the voyage the captain did not have to pay them. They had to buy work supplies on credit at exorbitant rates which put them in debt. Some were again kidnapped to other ships before the first voyage was officially over. So now they were still in debt but the first ship captain did not have to pay them any money. And as we know the work was hard and dangerous. These men could have had families starving at home not knowing what had happened to their loved one.

Books on Servitude

When Farming Isn't Bucolic

During the flood of 1927 in the Mississippi basin area the black population was not allowed to leave, they were needed to do clean up and work the land of the powerful landowners.

Sharecroppers were kept in debt by the owners of the land in order to keep them working for next to nothing. There are various ways this would play out and it could be any number of combinations. How this was done is the very familiar system of not paying in legal tender but in script. The landowners would determine how much the script was worth. Without legal tender the sharecroppers could not buy anything from anyone other than the landowners. And when they bought was at a highly inflated cost.

This seems to be a universal way of dealing with workers whom you want to compel to work yet not pay. Unfortunately this was and is not isolated to the farming industry but to any industry where they wanted to get more labor than they were willing to pay for.

Normal farm workers in the US get no overtime, no paid days off and young children work in the fields.

Abolitionist John Newton

Slave Ship Captain, Slave, Abolitionist

Abolitionist and writer of the words to the song Amazing Grace, John Newton was born in London to a shipping family in 1725 and was involved in the slave trade. As a young man he was forced against his will by a press gang to join the British navy. Later he was sold as a slave on the continent of Africa. While there he was treated badly but was helped by the other slaves. Due to family connections he was freed from his toils and went back to sea and the slave transporting business.

As an older man he stated that he should have gotten out of the slave trade business earlier than he did. He admitted that he saw nothing wrong at the time nor did anyone he knew see anything wrong with it. This was even after he gave himself to the lord and started to change his life around after a bad storm on the good ship Greyhound. He gave up vices like drinking and gambling. Hence the crux of the situation is how can you do right when you don't know what right is. His family and friends considered being a Slaver an honorable profession. He married a woman who is always described as very religious. She married him knowing what he did for a living..

Contrary to historical myths, he did not leave slavery while having an epiphany during the storm. He did not man a slave ship and sail it back to Africa nor did he ever claim to. The ship he was on during the storm carried beeswax and camwood not slaves. He later wrote that he only thought he had found God at that time and that he still had a long journey to go. He only left sea fearing and the slave trade due to ill health and became an anti slavery advocate in his later years.

His life story I find more interesting than the myths. He was a slave trader and a slave. He "saw the light" yet did not believe there was anything wrong with keeping fellow human beings in bondage .

He also lived long enough to gain wisdom and regret his prior occupation and really do good works.

What's Your Opinion?

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      6 years ago

      I think you've hit on a key issue here, which is that people sometimes use different names to soften something or make it seem less bad than it is. For example, nearly everyone agrees in our society that slavery is bad. But there is a history of replacing one oppressive system with another--sharecropping is an example, and sharecropping doesn't sound anywhere near as bad as slavery, so it gives the false impression that people really have more opportunity and freedom than they actually do. I think it's important to look deeper than the names of something, and to this end, I think that the many examples you give here are helpful illustrations because they show that slavery or involuntary servitude can take many different forms.

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      6 years ago

      Slavery is one of the worst evils in man's history. You do a great job here of expaining that there is more than one "type" of slavery. I learned a lot here today. It is encouraging that, in many countries, we have evolved to a point where slavery doesn't exist to the extent that it used to. This is a great lens. Thanks for sharing it with us.


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