Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

United Nations: Report on Debt Bondage

(Sept. 26, 2016) On September 15, 2016, Urmila Bhoola, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, presented a report on slavery in the modern world, in particular debt bondage, to the 33rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), being held September 13-30, 2016.  (Debt Bondage Remains the Most Prevalent Form of Forced Labour Worldwide – New UN Report, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website (Sept. 15, 2016); Calendar of Meetings and Events 2016, OHCHR website (last visited Sept. 20, 2016).)

Bhoola stated, “[e]ven though it takes place worldwide across many sectors of the economy, and is a form of enslavement with deep historical roots, debt bondage – also known as bonded labour – is still not universally understood.” She said it “remains one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in all regions of the world despite being banned in international law and most domestic jurisdictions.” (Debt Bondage Remains the Most Prevalent Form of Forced Labour Worldwide – New UN Report, supra.)

Definition of Debt Bondage 

The Report explains that debt bondage is addressed in the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery of 1956 as one of four practices similar to slavery or types of servitude (the others being serfdom, and certain kinds of exploitation of women and of children). (Report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Including Its Causes and Consequences (Report), A/HRC/33/46, ¶ 5 (July 4, 2016) (click on E to view English text); Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Supplementary Convention) (adopted Apr. 30, 1956, entered into force Apr. 30, 1957), OHCHR website.) Servitude can be viewed as “human exploitation falling short of slavery,” and debt bondage, while a type of servitude, can be characterized as slavery if the characteristics of ownership are present.  (Report, supra.)

Debt bondage, although not included in the definition of forced labor under the International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention, can be a form of forced labor, and the two practices overlap. (Id.)  The Convention refers to debt bondage as “work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” (Id.; CO29 – Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (adopted June 28, 1930, entered into force May 2, 1932), ILO website.)

The Supplementary Convention definition of debt bondage is broad enough, the Report comments, to cover workers in extremely different situations, “from in debt bondage in systemic, archaic, feudal systems of slave-labour exploitation,” to “migrant workers from developing countries who leave their countries accruing debt to cover the costs associated with recruitment.” (Report, supra, ¶ 8.)  In addition, there is a close relationship between debt bondage and various forms of exploitation, “including forced labour, the abuse of migrant workers, trafficking, and the worst forms of child labour.”  (Id.)

The Report further notes that debt bondage entails a power imbalance between the employer/ creditor and the worker/debtor that “often increases the worker’s vulnerability to further human rights abuses,” as “employers and creditors are reported to adjust interest rates, to make further deductions arbitrarily as penalties for perceived poor performance, and/or to charge high prices for basic goods or working tools resulting in an increase of the debt and the perpetuation of deeply exploitative situations.” (Id.  ¶ 7.)  In her remarks to the HRC, Bhoola emphasized that “[p]eople in debt bondage end up working for no wages or wages below the minimum in order to repay the debts contracted or advances received, even though the value of the work they carry out exceeds the amount of their debts.”  (Debt Bondage Remains the Most Prevalent Form of Forced Labour Worldwide – New UN Report, supra.)

For purposes of comparison, the definition of slavery under the 1926 Slavery Convention is as follows:

(1) Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

(2) The slave trade includes all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves. (Slavery Convention (signed on Sept. 25, 1926, entered into force on Mar. 9, 1927), OHCHR website.)

The People in Debt Bondage

Although there is reportedly no authoritative estimate of how many people worldwide are in debt bondage, the ILO provided a figure in 2012 of 20.9 million people being victims of forced labor of all forms. (Report, supra, ¶ 10.) According to Bhoola, while “these figures refer to all forms of forced labour, … given the close interrelationship with debt bondage, the figures offer some insight into debt bondage prevalence trends globally.”  (Id.)  Of the 20.9 million, the Asia-Pacific region has the highest absolute number of forced labor victims, “11.7 million, or 56 per cent of the global total,” with the second-highest number in Africa and the third-highest in Latin America and the Caribbean.  (Id.)

Some of the factors Bhoola enumerated as leading people and families into debt bondage include “structural and systemic inequality, poverty, discrimination, and precarious labour migration.” (Debt Bondage Remains the Most Prevalent Form of Forced Labour Worldwide – New UN Report, supra.)  Some of the factors that interfere with such persons being released from debt bondage include “[w]eak or non-existent financial and other regulatory frameworks, lack of access to justice, lack of law enforcement and governance as well as corruption.”  (Id.)