Unfree Labor

Exploitation of Everyday Life

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Sarah Davisson

HST 353

Dr. Bahde

5 February 2016

Slavery takes many forms, and there are many goals in mind when a new group of people

is forced to be subject to another. The need for agricultural labor has always been so high

and using other people to do the work has often been a popular way of getting it done. In

many instances throughout history, slaves have been used to build things for another

people group. The Pyramids, for example, in Egypt, and The Great Wall of China. Forced

labor is called ‘unfree’ for a reason. There is no need to pay these people to do work if it is

possible to make them do it for free.

“Chattel slavery” is what many think of when slavery is mentioned, and it is the legal

ownership of another human. This practice includes buying and selling people under the

pretense that they are property. Even today human trafficking exists, and the people who

are sold are often put to work (so nothing has really changed) in sweatshops, etc. for less

than what others get paid.

Corvee is another form of slavery, and this is the structure that was used in the building of

the pyramids. The government plays more of a role in this type of slavery, rather than only

the wealthier citizens. The labor of the slaves is used as a payment to the government,

which was usually a monarch or some such figure. Today it can be seen still in Burma,

where there is still a king, but generally it is only seen in the form of prison labor. It still

works in this context as the environment is similar in structure to a monarchy, with one

man at the top and a whole community of people under him, ready in a position to serve

whether by their will or against it.

In reference to Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it has been said that the

rate at which it was expanding lead to the rekindling of that old tradition of forced labor.

Because of the expansion, there was more required in terms of food, resources, money,

and so the reaction was to find cheaper labor in the form of slaves.

Debt bondage is another form of slavery, where a person willingly enters into the

slave/slave owner relationship, usually in the hopes of paying off a debt of some kind. Now,

“willingly” is a loose term, since how else is a person who is most likely poor, in debt, and

has no way to make money, supposed to pay back a debt otherwise? The slaves in this

situation are called indentured servants, because they remain under their masters and

serve them until they have been given enough compensation to pay for their debts. In this

time they are also given their meals, shelter, etc. Often in this category of slavery, the

indentured servants will learn a trade or craft under a master. Throughout the time they

are employed they will hopefully learn the specified craft well enough to carry on on their

own in the future. However, as in any of these systems, manipulation occurs to the

detriment of the slaves, of course. Specifically, labor could be used as payment in virtually

any situation. For food, water, and other basic necessities. So, ridiculous amounts of work

could be charged for something incredibly simple, making it so, in the end, a worker could

never earn enough to pay off his debt. Also in debt bondage, a man could put his wife or

children up to work off a debt of his.

Every single one of these systems is a form of slavery, and all of them strip individuals

of their rights. Whether it is independence, or a will of their own, it is taken. Decisions are

made for them, work is forced upon them, and a way out is seldom found and even less often

offered. The majority of the time money is at the center; a way to get cheap labor while

exploiting the misfortunes of the less well off.


Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Engerman, Stanley L. Slavery, Emancipation & Freedom: Comparative Perspectives. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2007. Print.

Klein, Herbert S. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap

of Harvard UP, 1987. Print.