Forced labor

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(Redirected from Slave labor)

Convict laborers in Australia in the early nineteenth century.

Forced labor, unfree labor, or slave labor are collective terms for a variety of work relations in which people are employed against their will, often under threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves or family members. Forced labor includes the corveé, serfdom, debt bondage, prisoners of war, and convict labor, as well as all forms of slavery.

The institution of the corveé was and remains an accepted form of national service, impressing able-bodied citizens for a term of forced labor as a form of tax or to defend the nation in time of crisis. In ancient Egypt, corveé labor built the Pyramids and in imperial China, corveé labor built the Great Wall. Even in the twentieth century, nations occasionally draft large labor forces to cope with natural disasters or to complete large-scale building projects. The military draft survives as a form of corveé.

Aside from the government-sponsored corveé, forced labor is now largely illegal. However, despite laws both national and international, human trafficking and debt bondage continue to be a significant problem, with people, many of them children, and many sold into prostitution, still suffering as slaves worldwide. Such abuse of human beings by other human beings is unconscionable, but it requires a change in human nature to activate the consciences of all, so that people can recognize each other as members of one human family and treat all people with the respect they deserve.

Types of Forced Labor

Forced or "unfree labor" refers to a spectrum of restrictive labor: chattel slavery, serfdom, the corveé, debt bondage, prisoners of war, and convict labor.[1]


"Chattel slavery," the legal ownership of a human being, is one of the most well known forms of forced labor. Individual workers may be bought, sold, or otherwise exchanged by their owners, and rarely receive any personal benefit from their labor. The concept of slavery predates recorded history; mention is made of slavery in the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and biblical texts, and slaves were used in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Slavery was also a large part of ancient Roman society; scholars estimate that as much as one third of Rome's population was enslaved. Roman slaves were employed in households and the civil service, and many were people who had been enslaved after they were conquered by the Romans.[2]

While many claim slavery originated from war and the subjugation and enslavement of one people by another, there are also early examples of slavery due to debt. In areas of Africa, for instance, a man would put up a wife or children as collateral for an obligation; if the obligation went unfulfilled, the wife or children became permanent slaves. Others purport that slavery was a result of the development of an agricultural economy, but numerous instances of slavery in nomadic or hunter-gatherer societies exist: Domestic and concubine slavery existed among the Vikings, Native Americans, and nomadic Arabs.[3]

One of the most prominent examples of chattel slavery was the capture and enslavement of millions of Africans, who were forcefully transported under inhumane conditions to the Americas, Asia, and Europe during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The economic success of the United States, particularly the southern states, was largely dependent on the labor provided by slaves in the fields, who were often mistreated, separated from their families, and degraded. It was not until the mid 1800s that legislation was passed abolishing slavery in the United States.

Did you know?
Slave trading, often referred to as "human trafficking," remains a major problem in the modern world.

Slave trading, often referred to as "human trafficking," remains a major problem in the modern world. In addition to forced labor in sweatshops, domestic situations, and farms, many victims are trafficked in the sex industry. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were an estimated 27 million slaves in the world.[4] It is estimated that 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked annually in the United States alone, and even more are trafficked internally.[5] Human trafficking is particularly problematic in Asian and South American countries, but the problem exists in nearly every country in the world. Victims are often lured by the promise of a better life; many are transported illegally across borders to find themselves forced to work under threat of violence or other retribution. Young girls are recruited, lied to, raped, and forced into prostitution rings; children forced to labor as beggars are sometimes intentionally disfigured to increase donations. Victims of human trafficking are often kept in inhumane conditions, threatened with violence to themselves or their families or exposure to local authorities. They are allowed little or no freedoms, and told they must work off to pay a theoretical "debt," often the fee for their original transportation, combined with added "debts;" in prostitution rings, involuntary abortions may be added to a girl's "debt." Organizations like the Polaris Project, Anti-Slavery International, the United Nations, and individual governmental agencies work worldwide to confront the issue and spread awareness of the problem.


Corvée, or corvée labor, is an administrative practice primarily found in ancient and feudal societies: It is a type of annual tax that is payable as labor to the monarch, vassal, overlord or lord of the manor. It was used to complete royal projects, to maintain roads and other public facilities, and to provide labor to maintain the feudal estate.

From the Egyptian Old Kingdom (c. 2613 B.C.E.) onward, (the 4th Dynasty), corvée labor helped in "government" projects; during the times of the Nile River floods, labor was used for construction projects such as pyramids, temples, quarries, canals, roads, and other works. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy V, in his Rosetta Stone Decree of 196 B.C.E., listed 22 reasons for being honored. They include abolishing corvee labor in the navy.

  • "Men shall no longer be seized by force [for service] in the Navy" (Greek text on the Rosetta Stone).[6]

Imperial China had a system of conscripting labor from the public, equated to the western corvée by many historians. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, imposed it for public works like the Great Wall and his mausoleum. However, as the imposition was exorbitant and punishment for failure draconian, Qin Shi Huang was criticized by many historians of China. Corvée-style labor was also found in pre-modern Japan.

The Bible records that King Solomon utilized corvée labor for building the Jerusalem Temple and other projects. He created resentment among the northern tribes by conscripting them for forced labor (1 Kings 5:13, 12:4) while apparently exempting the tribe of Judah. Jeroboam, who would lead the rebellion to establish the Northern Kingdom and become its first king, had been put in charge of this forced labor (1 Kings 11:28).

The corvée was abolished in France on August 4, 1789, shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution, along with a number of other feudal privileges accorded to French landlords. It had been a hated feature of the ancien régime.

After the American Civil War, some Southern states taxed their inhabitants in the form of labor for public works. The system proved unsuccessful because of the poor quality of work; in the 1910s, Alabama became the last state to abolish it.

Unpaid mandatory labor is reportedly still imposed by the government of Myanmar on its citizens. However, today, most countries have restricted corvée labor to military conscription and prison labor.


Serfdom, a system in which peasant laborers are bound to the land they work and subject to the lord of the manor, is associated primarily with feudalism and the Middle Ages in Europe, though examples also appear during feudalistic times in China, Japan, India, and pre-Columbian Mexico. Serfs required permission to move, as they were bound to the land, and were also obligated to give tributes to the manor lord. Marriages could be arranged by the lord, although these sort of practices followed generally agreed upon customs. Serfs customarily had a body of rights, and were considered to be servile as a group, rather than individually.[7] Serfs had the advantage of possessing the exclusive use of some land and/or means of production, legal or strongly traditional human rights, economic security, and free time to a much greater extent than slaves, the indentured, and many wage laborers.

Debt bondage

"Debt bondage," or "bonded labor," is a practice where workers willingly contract to enslave themselves for a specific period of time in order to repay a debt. Also called "indentured servants," workers receive food, clothing, and shelter, and labor for their master until the allotted time is over and the debt repaid. In many ways, debt bondage and indentured servitude are similar to apprenticeship, where one agrees to serve a master for a set amount of time in order to learn a trade. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a large portion of laborers in colonial America entered into debt bondage in exchange for passage to the New World. In 1925, the League of Nations showed evidence of bonded labor in all of South America, and stated that the practice was widespread throughout Africa and Asia.[8]

The "truck system" is often used in conjunction with debt bondage. Associated with small, isolated, and/or rural communities, a truck system is a system where workers or self-employed small producers are paid with a private form of currency redeemable only at a "company store" that is owned by their employers. In debt bondage situations, credit for the purchase of food and other necessities is provided in exchange for future labor. When operated ethically, the truck system has many benefits for isolated areas, but this system is easily exploited by the employer, who can require workers to pay exorbitant fees for basic necessities, creating a cycle in which workers will never be able to pay off their debt. Because of this type of exploitation, many governments have enacted legislation to outlaw truck systems and require cash payment for workers.

In its idealized form, debt bondage is entered into willingly and freely, workers are treated humanely, and the bondage is ended after the specified amount of time. The option of debt bondage, much like apprenticeship, has allowed many workers who possessed little or no assets to trade their labor for passage to a new life or freedom from debt. However, this form of indentured servitude is easily abused and manipulated, and often becomes nothing more than slavery. Laborers are often overworked, poorly treated, and forced to live in inhumane conditions, and unethical masters can find continual ways of adding to a worker's debt so that the debt is never paid off.

In many instances, a husband may enter his wife and children into bondage to repay a debt, with or without their agreement. Children of bonded servants often inherit their parents' debt, and are often overworked, mistreated, and threatened with violence for the rest of their life. Thus, the concept of debt bondage is often used to manipulate and traffic people into a situation where they have no rights, suffer inhumane conditions, and are forced into hard or demeaning labor with little or no hope of becoming free. In this situation, the term "debt bondage" is used to describe a situation that is, in reality, nothing more than slavery and human trafficking.

In 1956, the United Nations Supplementary Convention of the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery banned debt bondage, as well as serfdom, servile marriage, and child servitude. Many individual countries have additional laws forbidding the practice of debt bondage, but enforcement of these laws has continued to be a major problem.

Penal labor and penal colonies

Convict or prison labor is another classic form of unfree labor. The forced labor of convicts has often been regarded with lack of sympathy because of the social stigma attached to people regarded as "common criminals." In some countries and historical periods, however, harsh forms of prison labor were forced upon people whose crimes may not have warranted such a severe form of punishment: Victims of prejudice, those convicted of political crimes, and those who committed theft of desperation. In individual prisons, chain gangs, work details, and penal colonies, prisoners have historically been a significant source of labor. Penal colonies were institutions to which prisoners were exiled, usually with a geographic location that made escape difficult or impossible, and often to an economically underdeveloped area or territory.

Australian penal colony

One of the largest and best known penal colonies was the British penal system in Australia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Approximately 165,000 convict laborers were sent to Australia from the British Isles between 1788 and 1868, eighty percent of whom had been convicted of larceny. After a grueling and sometimes fatal eight month journey, surviving convicts served either a seven year, ten year, or life sentence.[9] Convicts were assigned to either the government works program, which performed such tasks as road building, or individual farmers, or merchants to work. Life in the Australian penal colonies was hard, and many prisoners were never allowed to return to the British Isles, even after their time had been served.

The Soviet Gulag

Beginning in 1919, the Soviet Union established a system of forced labor camps called the Gulag, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps. By 1934, the Gulag had several million inmates in camps throughout remote Siberia and the Far North. The inmates of the Gulag, many of whom were political and religious dissenters, suffered harsh conditions; inadequate food and clothing made it difficult to endure the harsh Russian winters, prisoners were often abused by the guards, and the death rate from exhaustion and disease was high. With the construction of canals, railroad lines, roads, and hydroelectric stations, the work of Gulag prisoners made a significant contribution to the Soviet economy.[10] The White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal was the Gulag's first massive construction project; in a mere twenty months, over 100,000 prisoners used pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows to dig a 141 mile canal, many of whom died during construction. The labor and death of the prisoners turned out to be futile; after its completion, the canal was determined to be too narrow and shallow to carry most sea vessels.[11]

German concentration camps

Another infamous system of forced labor camps can be found in Nazi Germany's concentration camps. During World War II, the Nazis constructed a huge series of camps, many of which were designed to utilize the labor of "enemies of the state," including Jews, Roma, and prisoners of war, for the economic gain of the German state. Prisoners were subjected to harsh and inhumane conditions and forced to labor at quarries, brickworks, rubber factories, and rail construction. Jews were often detained in walled off ghettos, within which the Nazis opened hundreds of factories to utilize Jewish labor. Laborers were given little in the way of food, clothing, and other basic necessities, and suffered demeaning and abusive treatment at the hands of the Germans. Workers, especially the Jews, were considered to be expendable and often worked to death. Once a worker became unproductive, he or she was often shot.[12]

Ebensee, located in Austria, was one camp designed to use prisoners' labor to construct a series of underground tunnels to house armament works. A great number of prisoners died from overexposure, starvation, illness, and overwork, and many others were tortured or killed outright at the whim of the Germans. One commandant of Ebensee openly offered extra cigarettes and leave to sentries who could boast the largest number of deaths in their section, and many prisoners were killed simply to help boost a sentry's numbers. Towards the close of the war in 1945, the death rate in Ebensee exceeded 350 per day.[13]

Forced labor in the modern world

Prison labor is still a component of many countries' penal systems, though it rarely is as harsh or inhumane as the prison labor in the gulags. In the United States, for example, prisoners have performed labor for private companies ranging from telemarketing to the manufacture of circuit boards, furniture, and clothing. Prisoners who perform such labor often earn a wage, which may be as little as twenty five cents or as much as minimum wage. Proponents of prison labor argue that such labor makes the prisoners feel productive, aids in their rehabilitation, and offer a flexible and dependable work force. Others argue that prison labor is easily exploited and hurts the economy by taking jobs from outside workers and holding down wages.[14]

While some forms of forced labor have become more or less obsolete, such as serfdom and penal colonies, others, like human trafficking, remain a huge problem worldwide, taking away the freedom and happiness of millions of people. In 1998, the International Labor Organization adopted a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to uphold basic human values, including the elimination of forced labor.[15] Most countries have legislation prohibiting debt bondage and human trafficking (as well as all other forms of slavery), but modern forms of slavery remain a significant threat within the criminal underworld. Programs to spread awareness of the problem, as well as the efforts of law enforcement agencies and human rights organizations, intend to make human trafficking and debt bondage as obsolete as serfdom.


  1. Ane Lintvedt, Free and Unfree Labor: A Review Essay. Retrieved January 5, 2007.
  2. Classic Ireland, Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins. Retrieved January 9, 2007
  3. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Slavery. Retrieved January 5, 2007
  4. Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 2004). ISBN 0520243846
  5. The Polaris Project, Human Trafficking. Retrieved January 9, 2007.
  6. E.A. Wallis Budge, The Rosetta Stone (Dover Publications, 1989).
  7. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Serf. Retrieved January 12, 2007.
  8. Garance Genicot, Bonded Labor and Serfdom: A Paradox of Voluntary Choice, University of California at Irvine, March 2001. Retrieved January 11, 2007.
  9. Jess Halliday, Convict Australia: Who Were the Convicts?
  10. Library of Congress, The Gulag: Revelations from the Russian Archives.
  11. The Gulag Museum of Perm, Russia, Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom. Retrieved January 11, 2007.
  12. Jewish Virtual Library, Forced Labor. Retrieved January 12, 2007.
  13. Mark Vadasz, Ebensee (Austria). Retrieved January 12, 2007.
  14. David Leonhardt, As Prison Labor Grows, So Does the Debate.
  15. International Labor Organization, ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Retrieved January 22, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race. New York, NY: Verso Books, 1994. ISBN 978-0860914808
  • Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0520243846
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London: Verso, 1988. ISBN 0860919013
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London: Verso, 1997. ISBN 1859841953
  • Brass, Tom. Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labor: Case Studies and Debates. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.
  • Brass, Tom, Marcel van der Linden, and Jan Lucassen. Free and Unfree Labor. Amsterdam: International Institute for Social History, 1993. ISBN 0820434248
  • Brass, Tom, and Marcel Van Der Linden. Free and Unfree Labor: The Debate Continues (International and Comparative Social History, 5). New York: Peter Lang AG, 1997. ISBN 0820434248
  • Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Rosetta Stone. Dover Publications, 1989. ISBN 0486261638
  • Hilton, George W. The Truck System, Including a History of the British Truck Acts, 1465-1960. Cambridge, UK: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd, 1960. ISBN 0837181305

External links

All links retrieved April 1, 2024.


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