Forced Labor and Debt Bondage


The idea of forced labor conjures up sights of people in shackles being led off to perform hard labor to pay back debts. No more. The modern picture of forced labor might be young girls working long hours as indentured servants to cruel employers, or sewing long hours in sweat shops for a mere pittance of what their time is worth, or more often young girls living in hovels and being forced to perform acts of prostitution against their will. All over the globe, young women are the current faces of forced labor and debt bondage. Some of the girls in these cases have been duped into volunteering for this type of servitude by being promised a better life with lots of money and good working conditions. But most often the young girls have either been stolen from their villages or sold off by their poor families in order to have some money to buy necessities for other family members.

According to Human Rights Watch, the practice of "debt bondage" among sexual traffickers is routine, and women often find that their so-called debts only increase and can never be fully repaid. (Available:

Some of the worst cases of forced labor have been documented and are reviewed below:

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (a U.S. territory)

This set of 14 islands set in the Pacific Islands includes the island of Guam. The CNMI has become a center of international human trafficking operations, with connections to the People's Republic of China, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Today there are an estimated 40,000 indentured workers in the CNMI who have been sent their after being intentionally deceived about compensation, health benefits, housing and the type of work they will be doing. These trafficked non-US workers are subject to debt bondage and/or forced labor. Even though the Northern Mariana Islands fly under the US flag, their labor standards, and minimum wages do not have to comply with our US standards. The CNMI government retains a prominent US law firm - paying over $4.25 million for lobbying efforts to forestall implementation of federal labor, immigration and minimum wage laws in the CNMI. The Northern Mariana Islands are the only US territory that has local control over both immigration & naturalization and minimum wage. The government there has repeatedly reneged on its promises to US federal authorities to equalize its minimum wage with the federal minimum wage and to reduce the number of nonresident guest workers. All the while, items produced there are entitled to display the "Made in the USA" label. (Global Survival Network, 1999)


In Japan there are in excess of 22,000 Thai women overstaying visas according to the Japanese Immigration Bureau. The Thai Embassy claims that 80-90% of these women are in the sex trade business. The majority of them have left Thailand voluntarily with the promise of waitressing or factory jobs. To their surprise, they quickly learn of their "debt". They are soon sold to a broker with the money they make and their tips being confiscated by their bosses. They often become sick or pregnant, with their cost of treatment being added to their "debt". If they contract AIDS it is grounds for resale, being sold to another broker as "fresh". But resale means starting repayment all over again. Human Rights Watch, a worldwide rights watchdog group, has intervened and found that the Japanese government is very unmotivated to assist these women and treat them as illegal aliens. The Japan Penal Code creates another problem in referring all of these cases to the Immigration Bureau which places the women into overcrowded deportation centers for prolonged time. (Fuller, 2001)


Nearly 2,000 women domestic workers every year since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 have fled the homes of abusive employers. These women are mainly from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and India. They report patterns of rape and physical assault, with debt bondage and illegal confinement being common. Kuwait has long depended on foreign workers to be the backbone on its labor. Unfortunately, Kuwait's law excludes domestic workers from their labor law protections. The maids' exclusion from the labor law creates isolation and denies them even minimal protection against unfair practices. Because of the isolation and the stigma of sexual assault, most domestic workers face many obstacles and are deterred from reporting employer abuse to the authorities. Human Rights Watch found that most of these offenses go unprosecuted and that the police often refuse to investigate their complaints. (Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women's Human Rights, 1995)

Women from Moldova

Moldova, an impoverished country between Romania and Ukraine, is quite destitute with the average person living on less than one US dollar a day. The deprivation of the population of Moldova has been a breeding ground for organized criminal gangs involved in the illegal trafficking of women. Poor families are coerced to sell their daughters for a small amount of money, or destitute women are lured to foreign countries by the assurance of work, income and visas only to find themselves forced into slave labor. In Kosovo, where some of the women end up, Albanian gangsters dominate the lucrative sex trade. (One Albanian gang brands their women to prevent them from being poached by other traffickers). Some of these young women are sent to the United States. These trafficked women are reluctant to seek help from police because they know they are in this country illegally. US officials often treat trafficked women as criminals rather than victims. They are often deported before they can testify when a trafficking ring is broken up. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is legally required to deal with such women in the same way as other undocumented workers who have broken the law. (Lee, 2001)

According to one brothel owner (as told to the Canadian magazine Macleans), peddling narcotics pales in comparison to the money made on women because once a drug is sold, it's gone, but a girl "can be sold over and over before she collapses, goes mad, commits suicide, or dies of disease". (Lee, 2001)

Efforts to stop sex trafficking are under way, but with such a global problem, the issue is compounded by local governments' lack of laws and enforcement. Women's charities, while marking International Women's Day on March 8, called for guaranteed asylum to sex slaves involved in cross-border prostitution. The charities who work closely with these victims say that the women are doubly trapped by being unable to escape their captors. A special hearing of the European Parliament will call for victims to be given asylum in return for testifying against their traffickers. Countries such as Belgium and Italy permit victims to stay indefinitely if they are willing to give evidence in court. Some believe that this is the only way women will risk helping the police and it has led to more prosecutions, while others believe tougher penalties for these violent crimes will be the only way to crack down on the traffickers. (Wheeler, 2001)

In addition to the women's charities, there are other projects such as Anti-Slavery International Trafficking Programme who's aim is combat trafficking of women and uphold the human rights of those who are trafficked. They find that there is a definite need for victims of trafficking to be given a temporary permit of stay if they are prepared to act as witnesses in court cases. Their director, Mike Dottridge states that: "It is crucial that people who are trafficked are treated as the victims of a human rights violation and not as illegal immigrants and immediately deported". (

In October of 2000 the U.S. House of Representatives took action by voting 371-1 to approve a bill which contains laws against forced labor by women and children. This bill establishes strict laws and penalties against violators, with prison sentences ranging from 20 years to life and they may also be forced to pay restitution to their victims for the wages that they would have earned during their involuntary service. (Brinkley & Schmidt, 2000)

Works Cited

Anti-slavery, today's fight for tomorrow's freedom. Available:

Brinkley, J. & Schmidt, E. New York Times (National Edition, vCL, n51, 534, 2000, p. A1).

Fuller, Pierre. Thai Women Twice Victimized - Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan. March 15, 2001, The Japan Times.

Global Survival Network. Trapped-Human Trafficking for Forced Labor in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (a US Territory). (Part 1 of 5), (1999), p. 1-7.

Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women's Human Rights (Part 31 of 49), (1995), p. 278-286. Lee, Martin A. Women and Children for Sale - The Globalization of Sexual Slavery. March 5, 2001, San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Wheeler, Shireen. Asylum Call for Sex Slaves, Smuggled Women are Trapped in a Life of Abuse. March 8, 2001, BBC News.


Women and Children For Sale: The Globalization of Sexual Slavery -

Suggested reading:

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, by Kevin Bale, published by University of California Press, 1999. Bales opens the book with the tale of a modern day slave, and explains how the definition of old and new slavery has not really changed: "the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation" (p. 6). Bales also explains that present day slaves influence us directly and indirectly every day through the clothes and shoes we wear, the rings on our fingers and the carpet on which we stand. These things might very well have been made by modern day slaves being paid next to nothing. The book goes on to document some countries where slavery is practiced today: Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil, Pakistan and India, and concludes with ways in which slavery could be stopped.

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