Debt Bondage and Trafficking in Women
last updated June 2015

Introduction

Traffickers often burden victims with excessive “debt” to trap them in bondage and exploit them for sex or labor. In the context of trafficking in women, debt bondage usually occurs when traffickers force women into prostitution to pay off “unlawful ‘debt’ purportedly incurred through [the women’s] transportation, recruitment, or even their crude ‘sale.’”[1]

In situations of debt bondage, women are unable to earn back the amount “owed” to the traffickers. If the trafficked women are in a country illegally or do not speak the local language, they have little recourse against their traffickers, who often retain their travel documents and use violence or threats of violence against the victim or her family to further control her. Traffickers may continue to charge costs for other services such as room and board and then fail to apply money earned by the trafficked women to the debt.[2]

Debt bondage defined

The definition of trafficking in persons contained in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) does not explicitly refer to debt bondage as a prohibited form of exploitation. However, the Palermo Protocol does forbid the use of coercion, force, fraud or deception to exploit people for prostitution “or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, [or] servitude."[3] Therefore, the Palermo Protocol forbids debt bondage where traffickers use deception, threats, or other forms of intimidation to force women into servitude or prostitution to work off debts that can never be repaid. Debt bondage is illegal under the Protocol even if the victim initially consented to participate in commercial sexual exploitation but was later trapped in it by fraudulent debt and other coercive means.[4]

Generally, debt bondage in the context of trafficking in women also satisfies long-standing definitions or interpretations of the term “slavery” in international law. For example, Article 1 of the U.N. Slavery Convention of 1927 defines "slavery" as "the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised."[5] Additionally, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Supplementary Slavery Convention) specifically defines "debt bondage" as:

the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.[6]

 

Specific prohibitions on debt bondage are now incorporated into different national and model laws on human trafficking around the world. For example, the Supplementary Slavery Convention definition of debt bondage is included in the 2010 U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Model Law against Trafficking in Persons (“UNODC Model Law”).[7] The UNODC Model Law “Commentary” explains debt bondage as “the system by which a person is kept in bondage by making it impossible for him or her to pay off his or her real, imposed or imagined debts.”[8] The U.S. anti-trafficking law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000,[9] as well as the U.S. State Department’s 2003 Model Law to Combat Trafficking in Persons,[10] also define debt bondage in accordance with the Supplementary Slavery Convention. Article 165 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Moldova, revised in 2006, defines the offense of trafficking to include the "threat of use or use of physical or psychological violence non-dangerous for a person's life and health, including through abduction, confiscation of documents and servitude for the repayment of a debt whose limits are not reasonably defined . . ."[11] (emphasis added).

Additionally, the term “deception” in the UNODC Model Law is defined to include deception as to the nature or conditions of the work or services to be provided, or any “other circumstances involving exploitation of the person.”[12] Women are often deceived about the nature of the work they will perform when they arrive in a new country. They may believe they are paying a trafficker to help them secure a domestic position and are instead forced into prostitution. Australia’s human trafficking laws specifically prohibit “deceptive recruiting for sexual services,” including deceiving a person about “the quantum, or the existence, of the debt owed or claimed to be owed.”[13]

In the United States, the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization, has developed “Model Provisions of Comprehensive [U.S.] State Legislation to Combat Human Trafficking.”[14] The most recent version, published in 2010, prohibits “debt coercion” as a means to exploit a person for labor or sex.[15] “Debt coercion” is defined as:

[E]xploitation of the status or condition of a debtor arising from a pledge by the debtor of his or her personal services or those of a person under his or her control as a security or payment for debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined or if the principal amount of the debt does not reasonably reflect the value of the items or services for which the debt was incurred.[16]

How women are trafficked and exploited through debt bondage: Examples from Nigeria and Bosnia

The UNODC in its 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons described the sophisticated process of trafficking women and girls from Nigeria to Western Europe for commercial sexual exploitation.[17] In Nigeria, traffickers require women to sign a “contract” with a sponsor.[18] A priest blesses the contract “with a ritual called juju.”[19] The women are then smuggled to Europe.[20] Once they arrive:

the victims are already under the control of the criminal organizations, and sexually exploited by being forced into prostitution in order to pay back the debt contracted with the sponsor. The belief in the power of the juju ritual as well as threats to family members back home normally secure the loyalty of the victims . . . . The victims’ debt could amount to some 40,000 - 70,000 euros that would cover just the travel and the protection. The debt will [rise] for additional expenses. Investigators estimate just 10,000 euros is spent by the organization to transfer the victim into Europe.[21]

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based NGO, published a study in 2002 called, “Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution,” that described the dynamics of debt bondage in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Although employers generally promised the trafficked women that they could keep 50 percent of their earnings after they paid off their debt, this rarely occurred in practice. In some cases, owners arbitrarily extended a woman's period of debt bondage and simply refused to split her earnings. According to A.A., a young Ukrainian woman trafficked into Bosnia and Herzegovina, ‘We came here, and the owner told us that we had been sold and that we had to work off our debt . . . . We could not leave. He said that we had to work three more months even after we had worked off our debt . . . . But after that we still had to work.’ . . . Through fines, forced purchases of lingerie and food, or outright theft, the women found that they effectively earned no money.[22]

Recognizing debt bondage as a form of trafficking in women

A 2008 study by the Australian Institute of Criminology on sex trafficking of women in Australia noted that in all suspected cases of trafficking, “coercion and control has involved a range of subtle methods such as threats of violence, obligations to repay debt, isolation, manipulation of tenuous or illegal migration situations and a general sense of obligation.”[23] The study noted these subtle methods such as debt bondage often masked trafficking situations where the victim was not obviously kidnapped, forcibly restrained or held against her will.[24]

Frequently, local law enforcement officials encounter victims of trafficking through raids of brothels or other crime prevention activities. Although it might not be immediately apparent that trafficking has occurred, it is important for officials to be aware of the fact that women encountered during such law enforcement activities may be in situations of debt bondage and that debt bondage is an indicator of trafficking.


[1] U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “What is Modern Slavery?”, http://www.state.gov/j/tip/what/ (accessed October 28, 2014); U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014,” 45 (Vienna: 2014), https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf.

[2] M. Heffern, "ABC’s of Human Trafficking: Debt Bondage, Exploitation, and Force," http://renewalforum.org/abcs-of-human-trafficking-debt-bondage-exploitation-and-force/ (accessed June 27, 2014).

[3] United Nations, "Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime," http://www.uncjin.org/Documents/Conventions/dcatoc/final_documents_2/convention_%20traff_eng.pdf.

[4] U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “What is Modern Slavery?”, http://www.state.gov/j/tip/what/ (accessed October 28, 2014).

[5] Slavery Convention, Geneva, 25 September 1926, League of Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 60, p. 254.

[6] Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, Geneva, 7 September 1956, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 266, p. 3, art. 1(a).

[7] U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, Model Law against Trafficking in Persons, 13 (2010).

[8] Ibid.

[10] U.S. Department of State, Model Law to Combat Trafficking in Persons (March 12, 2003), Art. 1, sec. 110. Note: this model law could not be located on the U.S. State Department website and has not been updated or replaced since 2003.

[11] Moldova, Criminal Code (2002, amended 2006), art. 165.

[12] U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, Model Law against Trafficking in Persons, 13 (2010).

[13] UNODC Model Code, citing Australia, Criminal Code Act 1995, chapter 8/270, section 270.7.

[15] Ibid., 4.

[16] Ibid., 3.

[17] U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014,” 56 (Vienna: 2014), https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch, "Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia Sex Industry," Bosnia And Herzegovina, Volume 14, No. 9(D), November 2002.

[23] Fiona David, “Trafficking of women for sexual purposes,” Australian Institute of Criminology, 39 (2008).

[24] Ibid.