Debt and labour coercion in historical perspective

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

As an academic, it’s always good to be invited to give a talk. Thanks to Shebanee Devadasan, President of Durham Justice Society, I was asked to join the Modern Slavery panel as part of their annual Human Rights Conference for this year.  I was in excellent company as my fellow panellists were Gary Craig,  Parosha Chandran and Meena Varma. My contribution was to provide some historical perspective on the role of debt as a method of labour coercion, as this is often a key mechanism through which modern forms of slavery operate.

Over the last decade I have been thinking hard about the relationship between debt and slavery in historical and contemporary societies. Exploring the transatlantic slave trade, I found that in the colonial records of the Portuguese government in Angola, discussions about debt slavery were an important part of the contested framework of enslavement between those areas under Portuguese law and those under African rule. As I discussed in my talk, European societies by the early modern period did not generally allow citizens to recover their outstanding debts through the enslavement of debtors. This had been a common route to enslavement in antiquity, and documentary evidence of such activity survives in the ancient Near East, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the third millennium to the middle of the first millennium BCE. Under the influence of Roman and biblical law, medieval societies in western Christendom increasingly rejected such practices. By the sixteenth century, debts were recovered on goods, livestock or lands, or through imprisonment until the debt had been repaid. The practice of debt bondage, in which the debtor agreed to work for the creditor until the debt had been repaid (also of ancient origin), was retained, however, and was used by early modern migrants from western Europe to the Americas who signed up to an agreed term of labour as a way to repay the cost of their passage. A very similar system remains in operation today. Siddharth Kara’s work on contemporary migrants shows how a formal debt agreement, which covers costs associated with travel and arranging work, has to be paid off on arrival through labour. But what Kara’s work also shows is that additional debts are imposed on migrants after travel and costs manipulated to keep them in debt and under control.

Debt slavery has been prohibited by international convention since 1926, and in 1956 a supplementary convention added debt bondage to the list as an institution or practice similar to slavery. Debt bondage as defined in this latter treaty refers to agreements in which the value of the labour that is performed is either not applied towards reducing the debt or has no defined time limit. A classic example is hereditary collateral debt bondage in South Asia, in which the debt rolls over to the next generation. Yet examples of debt bondage, also referred to as bonded labour and debt servitude, continue to exist around the world. There are good reasons for this, and working off your debt is not in itself against the law. The idea of being able to repay a loan through your labour offers those in need of resources, who have no other way of repaying their debt, a valuable as well as pragmatic solution. However, because this is often the only way funds can be raised it can encourage creditors to exploit their debtors and extend the labour-debt relationship indefinitely.

In my studies of the connection between debt and slavery I argue that the idea of debt is one of the most powerful sources of social coercion we know, and one of the earliest. There is a longstanding myth, as Graeber’s book articulated, that all debts have to be repaid, even though we recognise that this is not always the case. The idea of debt provides the glue that creates the social relationships that allow us as individuals to work with others for the benefit of us all. This cooperative strategy is not fool-proof, however, because not everyone obeys the rules. Debt as a social construct can also be weaponised as a way to force some to accede to the demands of others, and when debt can be recovered by using the human body, the impact can be devastating. During the transatlantic slave trade debt was used as a pretext for ensnaring its victims: if you could create a debt, no matter how small, you could call it in and claim a slave.

Today it is through the binding of labour rather than sale into slavery that debtors become trapped. Kevin Bales’ work on brick kiln workers in Pakistan revealed how dishonest managers could exploit the illiteracy of their labourers to ensure that the number of bricks they made did not cover the debts they had accrued. As a result the family had to return to work in the kilns the following year. The idea of debt may have most traction where labourers are involved in illegitimate activities. The extortionate interest rates that workers are charged in illegal gold mines in southern Ghana means they are quickly trapped into long hours of work as they try to repay their debt. They work because they are desperate and because they believe they must honour their borrowing agreements – their debts have to be repaid.

Brick kiln labourer. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Criminology, climate change and the ‘useable past’

Saphia Fleury, ‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

What are the harms inherent in human migration? Who are the victims and who is responsible? Does it make a difference whether somebody is fleeing environmental catastrophe rather than persecution or conflict? These are some of the questions I am grappling with in my PhD research, which seeks to understand the difficulties faced by migrants, particularly children, in the context of climate change.

My approach is somewhat unorthodox. I am trying to answer these questions by looking to the past, using case studies that are not directly connected to changes in the Earth’s climate. The first case study concerns the ‘boat people’ migration from post-war Vietnam (c.1975-1992), which is generally ascribed to political causes but also had environmental roots. The second is that of Montserrat, specifically the evacuation of more than half the island’s population following a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 1998. In what sense can these histories be considered ‘useable’, and provide an insight into future climate migration? For me, the answer lies in a perspective called eco-global criminology (EGC).

Like all branches of criminology, EGC is concerned with harms, victims and perpetrators. It seeks to predict future risks (to the environment, humans and animals) and develop solutions to prevent the worst environmental crimes occurring. Unlike many other branches of criminology, however, it is not limited to harms which are illegal. It also scans the global horizon for acts which are ‘lawful but awful’, which hurt the environment and by extension humanity, but are not strictly criminal. An important aspect of EGC is the transnational nature of these harms, and climate change is a truly transnational problem.

The two case studies, Vietnam and Montserrat, represent geographical regions with a history of major human migration and environmental degradation. In both cases, the people who fled their homes in the twentieth century, including large numbers of children, experienced human rights violations at the hands of the state and other actors.

Many of the children who fled volcanic eruptions in Montserrat came to the UK. Their arrival here often occurred after multiple relocations on their home island and in the Caribbean region. On arrival in the UK, some spent months, even years, in insecure and poor quality accommodation. The policies designed to prevent them leaving Montserrat in the first place, and later to protect them on their migratory journey, often failed to uphold their human rights. As a result, many of the children faced issues including poverty, insecurity, racism, trauma, family separation and a lack of educational attainment.

For all its failures, the evacuation of people from Montserrat was, to some extent, an example of planned and assisted relocation. For the boat people on the other hand, grave uncertainties, including a high chance of death, attended their irregular departure from Vietnam. Thousands were turned away by neighbouring states, resulting in many migrants perishing at sea. Others faced serious human rights abuses in camps and holding centres as they awaited resettlement.

By understanding the patterns of risk and harm that affected these migrants, EGC can help us to predict the risks that displaced persons may face in the future. Importantly, it also gives us the opportunity to prevent harm, by putting in place policies and programmes today that allow people to adapt to their changing environment, and/or protect them if they are forced to move. Vietnam and Montserrat are already experiencing climate change-related degradation and are forecast to experience worsening impacts in the coming decades. It is therefore possible that both countries will see a significant uprooting of their populations in the near future.

Today, Montserrat faces an increasing risk of strong hurricanes and, thanks to the destabilising effects of heavy rainfall, further volcanic activity. EGC can use the lessons of the past to plan for the future; to propose better policies to help Montserrat’s current generation of children remain in their homes, or in the worst case, to migrate safely and with dignity. Similar comparisons and lessons can be drawn from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where wartime environmental destruction led to massive food insecurity and was one push-factor in the boat people migration. Today, as flooding, drought and salinisation sweep through the Delta, similar issues threaten to uproot and scatter the rural poor. These examples of the ‘useable past’ provide the benefit of hindsight, and EGC compels us to anticipate and mitigate future harms to prevent another human tragedy.

In 1959, the environmentalist Peter Farb suggested that ‘life is like a delicate fabric’, presenting a romanticised vision of the interdependencies of the human and natural worlds. But his ultimate conclusion had a more ominous overtone:

The wonder is not that so many threads are necessary in the fabric, but rather than the fabric manages to exist at all. (P. Farb, Living Earth, 1960: 164)

When environmental harms pull at these threads, there is a grave risk that the structure will ultimately disintegrate. Both Vietnam and Montserrat have faced historical periods when the fabric of life certainly appeared to be falling apart, with both the natural world and human society hurtling towards a dangerous threshold. Climate change represents a similar existential threat today. Using an EGC approach may help prevent repetition of some of humanity’s past mistakes, as a small contribution to our collective battle against the gravest risk we face.

15 May 1984 – Vietnamese refugees wait to be rescued by the USS Blue Ridge from a 35-foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:35_Vietnamese_boat_people_2.JPEG