When did becoming an Indentured Servant become unlawful (or did it ever?)

In days of old when bandits bold roamed the seven seas, it was possible for white people to emigrate to the Thirteen Colonies (and, after independence, to the USA) by signing a contract of Indentured Servitude. This was a voluntary, temporary employment contract (not slavery) that essentially said that you couldn’t quit for X number of years (traditionally seven). In exchange for you signing the contract, the other party would buy you a ticket. In some ways, it was similar to a military enlistment contract - you could be punished directly if you tried to leave.

As time passed on, becoming an indentured servant as a wannabe immigrant (as well as “buying” an indentured servant as a potential employer) became less advantageous and the practice seems to have sort of died out as a popular practice sometime in the late 1800’s-ish.

When was the last year in which it was possible, legally, to become an indentured servant? Was there a specific law that outlawed it, or did the practice simply become unpopular and there is nothing in the law to say that it could not be revived? Could one legally emigrate to the US as an indentured servant in 1910? 1930? 1950?

I will also allow answers that relate to other British colonies or former British colonies, and possibly other colonial (or ex-colonial) countries such as Mexico or Brazil.

Please limit this question to the practice of indentured servitude itself as it was traditionally and legally defined. It does not cover arguably less than moral labor practices such as not providing health care, reclassifying workers as independent contractors, refusing to give references, or providing crappy 401k’s.

Sounds similar to being a bonded trainee, i.e. employer pays for training and you are required to work for employer for at least two years unless you pay back training costs. I believe that is still legal in New Zealand.

Apparently something loosely like this is (or was until some recent time) still legal (and horribly abused) in some of these united states. Ross Perot’s company EDS (Electronic Data Systems), based in Texas, was notorious in its day for this. The racket was:
[ul][li] Hire new trainees by the truckload to do data entry or similar work.[/li][li] Put them through a lengthy training program, during which they were required to do actual work for little pay.[/li][li] Contract stipulated that if they don’t work for EDS after that training, they must then pay the company for the training they had received.[/li][li] As their training programs came to an end, most of them were simply fired (on some pretext that their performance was unsatisfactory). Or say rather, the company declined to hire them as regular employees. Only a small few were hired.[/li][li] Company then billed the fired trainees for their training. Hey, the contract didn’t say anything about why they ended up not working for the company.[/li][li] Company continually hires new truckloads of trainees to keep its workforce up.[/ul][/li]Sorry, can’t find any cites. This was many years ago. There were big articles about it at the time.

The more recent version is holding onto the person’s “Green Card” (INS work visa).

Want to come and work in the USA and make USA wages?

Yes, you can quit, and we can tell the INS that we are no longer sponsoring you.

The employer takes 20-30% of billing rate for however long.

The folks from UK generally went looking for an American citizen to marry before the contract expired.
The ones from India generally wanted to go home with the money and live comfortably.

A work visa is not a green card. And while it is conditional on employment, it is possible to switch employers while in the US on a work visa.

I haven’t looked it up, but effectively in 1999 for Australia, when the “slavery” provisions were modified to include indentured servitude.

Apprentices still sign indentures last I looked, but the terms of that relationship are no longer the kind of thing you are talking about.

I’m would have thought that a real indentured servant would have been an invalid employment contract, but from the discussion following the first new slavery conviction, it was clear that changes in 1999 had actually extended the law to catch something which wouldn’t have been caught before.

The obvious “out” is minimum wage. You can only be “indentured” to cover reasonable expenses. In the historical case, this was the cost of passage. Today, any such initial debt has to be reasonable and appropriate. Many states and Canadian provinces have guidelines for charging “room and board” to mitigate the ability to delay pay-down of the debt based on minimum wage, and overtime laws to limit the claim on an indentured worker’s hours. The live-in maid on demand on call 24-7 would become very expensive very quickly without a cleverly written contract.

Of course, modern laws also allow a person to declare bankruptcy… So worst case, the “pay back training” becomes a debt the ex-slave simply writes off, if the repercussions of bankruptcy are less than the burden of being someone else’s bitch.

In the good old days, indentured servant was preferable to living in a lawless tenement slum, as you got to live in the attic of a pretty nice house and the master provided security (from others) decent clothes, and enough food you wouldn’t faint from hunger - a better lot than many in the slums could look forward to.

Modern welfare tends to provide your own place and food (generally) so a lot of the main benefit of servitude is lost.

More correctly, usedtobe is referring to an H1B Visa., which is a essentially form of (reasonably well paid) bonded servitude.

According to this scholar, this must have been at some point in the 1830s:

The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis
Author(s): David W. Galenson
Source: The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 1-26

(page 13)


Since the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says this, we can put a definite date on it for the U.S.

It still isn’t illegal to sell yourself into slavery. You aren’t violating a criminal law if you signed such a contract. It’s just that no court would enforce that contract.

Also it’s very rare for courts to enforce specific performance on a contract. Suppose I agree to build a deck for your house, and we sign a contract saying that I’ll build a deck of such-and-such specifications in return for such-and-such payment. You pay me the money, and I never build the deck. You take me to court. Will the court order me to go out and build the deck? No, it will order me to return the money, plus penalties and damages.

So if I sign a contract to do work for you and then don’t do the work, no court is going to force me to do the work, instead it will force me to pay you back whatever you paid me or whatever expenses you agree to in return for my work. If I can’t pay you back because I’ve got no money and I declare bankruptcy then you’re out of luck.

hmm, So, how does the military get away with throwing you in the brig if you decide to quit and go home? How do they get away with harsh training and punishment if you don’t perform to expectations?

As the OP pointed out, you sign your life away at the recruiters office. Uncle Sam owns you for the duration.

I realize it is necessary. They can’t have troops quitting or just walking off in a critical moment. It’s different from a normal 9 to 5 job. But indentured servitude seems to be the model that military service is based on.

Isn’t the old apprentice program very similar to indentured servitude? Ten or Eleven year old boys were given to their Masters. Given a place to live, food, training etc. But it could be quite harsh. The kid pretty much belonged to his Master. Living conditions, food and so forth were entirely up to the whims of the Master. Ben Franklin suffered under a difficult apprenticeship. His own brother beat him. Ben was a runaway apprentice.

And in times of conscription, Uncle Sam owns you without you having signed anything.

Training in a union is normally as an Indentured apprentice. In many unions after graduating they expect you to work in your trade in a union shop. If you take your training and work in a shop not covered by that union’s contract they can demand you pay for the cost of your training.

The Wikipedia article on Indentured Servitude claims that:

The reference #45 in that cite is the same paper cited in post #10 above, which seems to contradict the claim there that the practice died in the 1830s (although that might be when the bulk of the practice ended).

I haven’t tried to look up the paper and read it.

Well, for one thing, you can actually read the 13th amendment that I cited:

Or are you seriously contending that the military does not have courts and trials and a UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE?

And the Courts have ruled that a draft is not involuntary servitude.

The word indentured is still used in apprentice contracts, true, but is not in any way indentured servitude.

Demanding that a worker repay training or housing costs is not indentured servitude. “We paid for X and Y because you agreed to work for us, you didn’t work for us, so you owe us repayment for X and Y” is not even close.

If you can’t/won’t pay your former employer for the training you received, you aren’t going to suffer any criminal penalties, nor can your employer come over to your house and drag you to work. The most you can be required to do is repay them, and that repayment is treated just like other sorts of debts (although student loans creditors often have some protection during bankruptcy). It is not a crime in the United States to owe a debt and not pay that debt.

This book claims that involuntary indenhtured servitude existed until 1919, when it was eliminated by the Child Welfare Act:


**Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919 **

by Karin L. Zipf
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Describes institutionalized involuntary servitude of poor women and teenagers in colonies, when it was a feature of immigration, and in nineteenth century America.