Debt bondage or slavery?

Dame Julie Okah Donli

By Julie Okah Donli

Debt bondage which is also known as bonded labour or debt slavery is a form of human slavery and a component of human trafficking, it is also a gross violation of human rights because in most cases, Victims are forced to work to pay for debts they never incurred.

Despite been proscribed by international and domestic law, debt bondage is still one of the most common form of modern slavery. This form of slavery takes its root from some historical traditions and culture where a man was permitted to sell his children to pay off his debts.

Also, a debtor was permitted by tradition to force a man and his family into working in terrible living conditions on his farm or at home to pay off a debt. In extreme cases, a debtor’s wife (ves) could be taken away for sex slavery to pay off debt incurred by her husband.

Debt bondage is forced labour exchanged for a debt which can never be paid. In many cases, victims are deceived or forced into working in dehumanizing human conditions with the hope that they will eventually pay off debts owned by their parents or other family members. According to the International Labour Organisation, debt bondage affects 50% of all forced labour victims.

Although there are no exact statistics on the number of persons in bonded labour, experts have pointed to an estimate of twenty one million in forced labour.

According to the International Labour Organization (IOM), “This figure provides an indication of the extent of bonded labour, given the close inter-relationship between the two phenomena affecting victims of multiple forms of discrimination.”

A victim of human trafficking whom I rescued from Egypt while narrating her story told me that for many victims out there, there is no end to paying debt.

She said her trafficker had told them that a certain percentage of her salary would be deducted every month for a certain period of time after which she will be free but it never happened.

Not only did they take all her salary, they continued to do so even after the expiration of the agreement. This is not peculiar to trafficked victims alone, research has shown that most people would never let their debtors go no matter how long they work for their debt.

Debt bondage happens in different forms of human trafficking such as sports trafficking, arm trafficking, drug trafficking, etc. In this case, a trafficker pays full or part time visa and flight bills of victims and then forces them to a life of drug trafficking, arm trafficking, etc to repay the bills.

We once had the case of an anonymous caller who called my Foundation to say that he was a drug addict and after selling all that he owned to buy drugs, he became bankrupt.

He thought the urge would go with lack of money but it didn’t and so he became desperate and ended up in the arms of a drug trafficker who promised him endless supply of illegal drugs, all he had to do was to move illegal drug from one place to the other. It was a deal that was supposed to last forever and one that would cost his life if he ever stopped.

People in debt bondage often work for no salary or receive salaries below the minimum wage because they are desperate to repay the debts contracted or advances received by them or family members, even though the time and efforts put into the job exceeds the amount owed.

Many victims while narrating their stories told me that the possibilities of what victims are meant to do in debt bondage are limitless.

For instance, a trafficker tells a victim that all she needs to do is to work hard as a domestic servant and pay off her debts only for her to realize that working also meant enduring all forms of sexual exploitation.

In another instance, a victim was deceived into working as a domestic servant to pay off a debt only for her to realise that she has been sold off.

In other words, debt bondage usually begins disguised as an employment opportunity to pay off a debt with masked dehumanizing conditions that seem attractive at the first sight, only to gradually metamorphose into an endless cycle of permanent enslavement.

According to the victim, she had contacted a friend to give her a loan of one million naira so she could invest in a Ponzi trade and pay back with profit.

Her friend sent her the money and she invested without hesitation. Few months after investing, before she could receive her first return on investment, the Ponzi business crashed and she could not pay back the loan.

After several months, her friend who had given her the loan began to harass her to pay back and offered to introduce her to someone who would help pay back the loan.

Of course she thought she had no choice than to meet the person and when she did, the woman promised to repay the loan on her behalf, all she needed to do was to work as a domestic help in a foreign country for one year after which she will be at liberty to either return to the country or continue working for herself over there.

The victim asked why she had to travel all the way to another country to work as a domestic servant when she could have hired someone already there, the lady said the employer was her relation and she wanted someone she could trust with her children and wealth. It sounded so good and this poor girl accepted and was trafficked out of the country.

After working for one year for her employer, she decided that it was time she returned to the country since the agreement was for her to work for a year, her demand for freedom gave her the shocker of her life and that is the fact that her trafficker had sold her off.

This means that she was to remain a slave for as long she lived. She was lucky to have been rescued and is lucky to be alive to tell her story, many people are not this lucky.

To rid the society of this ancient menace, a lot needs to be done and this must involve all of society, governmental and non-governmental Organisations. These and many more shall be discussed in the next edition.

Dame Julie Okah Donli is the Executive Chairman, Roost Foundation, Chairperson of the board of trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons (UNVTF). She was until December 2020, the Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

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