Created By: Wardog on May 12, 2013 Last Edited By: StarSword on January 19, 2014
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Indentured Servitude

Someone is compelled into slavery or servitude to pay off a debt.

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Indentured servitude is a historical form of slavery where the worker is required to serve a set length of time to pay a debt to their owner. The indenture has some form of term limit and rights as specified in a contract or law. In some cases the arrangement is entered into voluntarily, while in others it may be court-ordered.

Indentured workers tend to be treated better than traditional slaves and are contracted for a set length of time. They are not allowed to change jobs except on the agreement of the holder of their indenture, and running away is usually considered a crime. Once the term of their indenture expires, however, they're free to live as they please.

This is sometimes used in Speculative Fiction, often as part of a Schizo Tech setting.

Subtrope of Made a Slave. Compare Work Off the Debt, which is typically a shorter-term, informal arrangement. Also compare Company Town, which in bad cases leads to a permanent cycle of debt for the workers.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Hayate the Combat Butler: After the title character is abandoned by his parents to work off their massive debts, he is "hired" by Nagi, a rich heiress, to work it off.
  • In the yaoi manga Okane Ga Nai the main character Ayase is auctioned off by his cousin to repay family debts and is purchased by a rich yakuza named Kanou. Because Kanou is in love with Ayase, he agrees to change the terms of their relationship from slavery to indentured servitude, giving Ayase a wage and allowing him to start earning his freedom.
  • In Ouran High School Host Club the protagonist, Haruhi, is forced to join the host club to work off her debts after she breaks a ridiculously expensive vase in the first chapter.
  • He Is My Master: In the first episode Izumi breaks a vase worth 5 million yen. She becomes a maid to the vase's owner to pay off her debt to him.

    Film 
  • This is the plot driver for the European film Acla, also known as Acla's Descent, when the title character is sold into indentured servitude. Has a Downer Ending albeit with a Bittersweet Ending taste.
  • In Memoirs of a Geisha, Saiyuri is sold to an okiya to become a geisha. She works there and her service pays off the expenses of her sumptuous kimono, wigs, and other items she needs to become a full geisha.

    Literature 
  • The "Vats", humans grown from cloned tissue, in Rats, Bats and Vats will have to start their adult life with paying off the debts accrued from being "[g]rown in a Company Vat, raised in a Company Nursery, and educated in a Company School".
  • Institutionalized indenture is constant in the Uplift universe. All new intelligent life is created when a starfaring race genetically engineers a wild species to add sapience. In the laws of the Five Galaxies, the "client" race is then required to serve their "patron" race for 100,000 years[[labelnote:*:approximately, in Earth time[[/labelnote]] of "indenture," which ranges from subordinate but dignified positions to brutal slavery. Indentured clients are legally attached to their patrons, have very few civil rights, and are "spoils of war" if their patrons are conquered or exterminated. Humanity is in constant danger, so they've freed chimpanzees and dolphins from indenture even though their Uplift isn't even finished yet.
  • Indentured servitude is legal in the eponymous nation of Tamora Pierce's Tortall Universe. In one quartet, the protagonist buys the two-year indenture of a servant boy who was being abused by his current master.
  • In the Children of Steel series animen are indentured to their parent company for 50 years or until they've paid off the cost of their gestation and upbringing. Few survive that long.
  • Azi in C. J. Cherryh's Alliance/Union universe have the rights of minors but they can be made citizens under certain circumstances, and their children are citizens. Considering the original point of azi was to increase the Union's genetic diversity.
  • A.N. Roquelaure's (Pen Name for Anne Rice) Beauty series features a sexual indentured servitude. Before they're permitted to take rulership, young nobility and royalty are sent into training as sexual slaves. It's also a means of social mobility, as commoners and lesser nobles may also submit themselves for the same treatment. Slaves may also beg to remain so for life.
  • Kushiel's Legacy: Terre d'Ange has Houses which take in children, training them and then having them serve for sex until their servitude is completed (signified by the completion of a tattoo that runs the length of their backs). Both Phedre and Alcuin are bonded as this, and Phedre once buys out the indenture of a girl who suffered a facial injury before she could complete her term of service and couldn't get any more customers because of it.
  • In Renegades of Gor the protagonist meets a free woman caught in indenture after she ran up a large bill at an inn and couldn't pay. Her actual plan was an Exploited Trope: She would attempt to dine 'n dash but let herself get caught by the manager and be chained up outside, where she would beg passersby to redeem her debts, promising to pay them back later. She would then run off and do the same thing all over again. Such women are dubbed "debtor sluts" and it's usually a workable scam, but at the moment there's a major war going on and nobody was interested in buying her out, so she's stuck.
  • In Earthrise Harat-sharin slaves sign themselves into temporary contracts. During their terms as slaves they have a lot of protections under the law and their savings accrue much higher interest than normal. Indentured servants on the other hand are convicts who have practically no rights.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Present in Firefly as part of the setting's massive Schizo Tech.
    • In "The Train Job" Inara extricates Mal and Zoe from the local sheriff by claiming he's a runaway indentured man whom she located after he embezzled money from her accounts.
    • On Higgins' Moon ("Jaynestown") most of the ceramics workforce is indentured, which allows the magistrate owning their contracts to get filthy rich by keeping conditions in the Company Town as cheap and crappy as possible and paying them as little as possible. The RPG says his son has been working to improve things since the episode, though.
  • In one episode of Barney Miller a diplomat has a slave. The slave's grandfather borrowed money from the diplomat's grandfather and he's still working off the debt.
  • Seinfeld:
    • This is a plot device that Jerry and George use for the pilot they write for NBC, in which, Jerry gets into a car accident with another man, and since said other man didn't have car insurance, the judge ordered the man to become Jerry's butler.
    • The above inspires Frank to do the same to George when his car is ruined while in George's possession (George had parked the car in a handicap spot, and a wheelchair-bound woman ended up having a serious accident because of it).

    Mythology and Religion 
  • The Bible: Indentured servitude was common in Israel. To prevent it from becoming too permanent, the year of Jubilee was established; every fifty years all debts were forgiven and slaves set free.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Eclipse Phase indentured servitude was revived once Brain Uploading was developed. Mega Corps would hire people from third-world countries and upload their Egos to cheap synthmorphs on their mining colonies throughout the solar system in exchange for some years of labor. Then came the Fall and billions uploaded themselves seeking to escape the TITANs, most became disembodied infomorphs. The newly emerged Hypercorps began exploiting this massive "infugee" population with indenture contracts promising them new bodies, which often have built-in dependencies on expensive treatments that only the corps can provide. Naturally most of the Autonomist Alliance condemns this practice, with the exception of the anarcho-capitalist Extropians (the rest of the Alliance being collectivists).
  • In Ironclaw indentured servitude is one of the more serious penalties that can be applied to commoners in Calebria. And the Phelan normally impose fines for all crimes but if the accused cannot pay they are sold into slavery. The price list for Labor in the equipment chapter lists slaves with an indenture of one year or for life.

    Video Games 
  • In Mass Effect 2 the asari planet Ilium practices this, though many (including possibly Shepard) still consider it slavery. Unlike with the batarians the practice is strictly regulated as to the treatment of the indentures, work conditions, what types of work are permitted, and the length of service allowed. There's even agencies that match indentured workers with employers. In one sidequest Shepard encounters a quarian software engineer who ended up selling herself into indenture to cover gambling debts. Shep can talk a computer company's rep into buying the quarian's contract from an indenture agency.
  • In one quest in Half-Minute Hero, you're forced to enter into one of these arrangements via But Thou Must means. The town you're sent to is a scam with a system that makes it impossible to make enough money to leave, ideally keeping you a slave forever. Of course, your Timey-Wimey Ball abilities make the scam breakable.
  • In Colonization, criminals and indentured servants emigrate from Europe. These people are ineffective at any skilled job, but may eventually become a free colonist through labor or military service (criminals become indentured servants first before turning into free colonists).

    Webcomics 
  • In Looking for Group Cale saves a slave ship full of bankers who ruined their kingdom's economy, and were sentenced to five years of servitude as punishment.

    Real Life 
  • The practice is Older Than Feudalism in Real Life. The Ancient Athenian lawmaker Draco passed a law that any man who was owed a debt by another could claim the indebted party as a slave until the debt was paid off.
  • During the American colonial era poor Englishmen would often sell their labor to colonial landowners for a set number of years in exchange for the landowner paying their fare across the Atlantic. The practice fell into disuse as African slavery became more prominent but was still occasionally seen as late as 1917.

Indexes: A Slave to the Index, Older Than Feudalism (thanks to Real Life)

Community Feedback Replies: 48
  • May 12, 2013
    StarSword
    We don't have a trope for indenture specifically, no. Right now we've got examples spread across several slavery tropes, including:

    TV:
    • Present in Firefly as part of the setting's Schizo Tech. On Higgins' Moon ("Jaynestown") most of the ceramics workforce is indentured, which allows the magistrate owning their contracts to get filthy rich by keeping conditions in the Company Town as cheap and crappy as possible and paying them as little as possible. The RPG says his son has been working to improve things since the episode, though.

    Video Games:
    • In Mass Effect 2 the asari planet Ilium practices this, though many still consider it slavery. Unlike with the batarians the practice is strictly regulated as to the treatment of the indentures, work conditions, what types of work are permitted, and the length of service allowed. In one sidequest Shepard encounters a quarian software engineer who ended up selling herself into indenture to cover gambling debts.
  • May 16, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    The Company Town trope is related: in such towns, workers for the dominant company were often housed in company housing (for which a rent was deducted from their pay), and paid in "scrip" which could only be used at "company stores" owned by the employer, which of course controlled the prices of goods there. Often the housing, and the necessities and work supplies (which the worker was responsible for obtaining) sold at the company stores, were priced such that the worker was bound to go into debt, and he had no actual currency to get out of town and start anew either--and was thus stuck with a legal obligation to continue working there due to his indebtedness.
  • May 29, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In one episode of Barney Miller a diplomat has a slave; the slave's grandfather borrowed money from the diplomat's grandfather and he's still working off the debt.
  • May 29, 2013
    arbiter099
  • May 29, 2013
    herbides
    Anime & Manga
    • Hayate no Gotoku or Hayate the Combat Butler after the title character is abandoned by his parents to work off their massive debts, he is "hired" by Nagi, a rich heiress, to work it off.
    • In Okane ga nai (yaoi) the main character Ayase is auctioned off by his cousin to repay family debts and is purchased by a rich yakuza named Kanou. Because Kanou is in love with Ayase, he agrees to change the terms of their relationship from slavery to indentured servitude, giving Ayase a wage and allowing him to start earning his freedom.
    • In Ouran Host Club the protagonist, Haruhi, is forced to join the host club to work off her debts after she breaks a ridiculously expensive vase in the first episode.
  • May 29, 2013
    kjnoren
    Good call for this one. I agree that Work Off The Debt should be limited to short-duration work, or where it's not formalised and institutionalised.

    Literature:

    • The "Vats", humans grown from cloned tissue, in Rats Bats And Vats will have to start their adult life with paying off the debts accrued from being "[g]rown in a Company Vat, raised in a Company Nursery, and educated in a Company School".

  • June 18, 2013
    ArcadesSabboth
    Literature:

    • Institutionalized indenture is constant in the Uplift universe. All new intelligent life is created when a starfaring race genetically engineers a wild species to add sapience. In the laws of the Five Galaxies, the "client" race is then required to serve their "patron" race for 100,000 years[[labelnote:*:approximately, in Earth time[[/labelnote]] of "indenture," which ranges from subordinate but dignified positions to brutal slavery. Indentured clients are legally attached to their patrons, have very few civil rights, and are "spoils of war" if their patrons are conquered or exterminated. Humanity is in constant danger, so they've freed chimpanzees and dolphins from indenture even though their Uplift isn't even finished yet.
  • June 19, 2013
    Melkior
    Film:
    • This is the plot driver for the European film Acla also known as Acla's Descent when the title character is sold into indentured servitude. Has a Downer Ending albeit with a Bittersweet Ending taste.
  • June 19, 2013
    eowynjedi
    • Indentured servitude is legal in the eponymous nation of Tamora Pierce's Tortall Universe. In one quartet, the protagonist buys the two-year indenture of a servant boy who was being abused by his current master.

    A Real Life bit would fit in here, I think, since there are historical instances (for example, a lot of people secured passage to "the New World" by indenturing themselves for a certain number of years) and modern ones.
  • June 19, 2013
    SharleeD
    • Subverted on Libertys Kids, in which Henri was out-and-out enslaved as a punishment for stowing away on a ship to America. In practice, he was treated like an indentured servant, however.
  • December 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^That's a plain aversion.

    Wrote a description and added examples. Thoughts?
  • December 15, 2013
    kjnoren
    I'd drop the note about the English indentured servants in America from the description. it's far more common than that.

    It probably should be explicit that it's a form of slavery, where the indentured servant has some form of term limit and rights as specified in a contract or law (that said, a lot of slave societies also has given rights to slaves in their laws).

    Also, I believe indentured service could also be a punishment from a court.
  • December 15, 2013
    pinkdalek
    • In one quest in Half Minute Hero, you're forced to enter into one of these arrangements via But Thou Must means. The town you're sent to is a scam with a system that makes it impossible to make enough money to leave, ideally keeping you a slave forever. Of course, your Timey Wimey Ball abilities make the scam breakable.
  • December 15, 2013
    zarpaulus
    Literature
    • In the Children Of Steel series animen are indentured to their parent company for 50 years or until they've paid off the cost of their gestation and upbringing. Few survive that long.
    • Azi in CJ Cherryh's Alliance Union universe have the rights of minors but they can be made citizens under certain circumstances, and their children are citizens. Considering the original point of azi was to increase the Union's genetic diversity.

    Tabletop Games
    • In Eclipse Phase indentured servitude was revived once Brain Uploading was developed. Mega Corps would hire people from third-world countries and upload their Egos to cheap synthmorphs on their mining colonies throughout the solar system in exchange for some years of labor. Then came the Fall and billions uploaded themselves seeking to escape the TITANs, most became disembodied infomorphs. The newly emerged Hypercorps began exploiting this massive "infugee" population with indenture contracts promising them new bodies, which often have built-in dependencies on expensive treatments that only the corps can provide. Naturally most of the Autonomist Alliance condemns this practice, with the exception of the anarcho-capitalist Extropians (the rest of the Alliance being collectivists).
  • December 15, 2013
    ShanghaiSlave
    might wanna add "Not to be confused with using dentures for Fan Service (or Fan Disservice)." that's what i thought when i saw the title.
  • December 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Lolwut? XD

    @kjnoren: Made some tweaks to the first paragraph.
  • December 15, 2013
    ShanghaiSlave
    ^ i'm serious though. had i not clicked The Other Wiki link in the description i wouldn't know "indentured" wasn't about false teeth.
  • December 15, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ Or just change the title to "Servitude" as I've never heard the term "Indentured Service" ever.
  • December 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Agree with that. "Service" is what the draft started with, but "Servitude" is more commonly used.
  • December 15, 2013
    shimaspawn
    Keep the title as it is. It's a prexisting term.
  • December 15, 2013
    justanotherrandomlurker
    Live Action TV
    • Seinfeld: This is a plot device that Jerry and George use for the pilot they write for NBC, in which, Jerry gets into a car accident with another man, and since said other man didn't have car insurance, the judge ordered the man to become Jerry's butler.
      • Similarly, this inspires Frank to do the same to George when his car is ruined while in George's possession (George had parked the car in a handicap spot, and a wheelchair-bound woman ended up having a serious accident because of it).
  • December 15, 2013
    ShanghaiSlave
    servitude is better but False Teeth is still the first thing that comes to mind. well, won't argue with an actual term.
  • December 15, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^^ Already changed it. It was previously "Indentured Service" rather than the more commonly used in Real Life and fiction "Indentured Servitude".
  • December 16, 2013
    kjnoren
    Literature:

    • A.N. Roquelaure's (Pen Name for Anne Rice) Beauty series features a sexual indentured servitude. Before they're permitted to take rulership, young nobility and royalty are sent into training as sexual slaves. It's also a means a social mobility, as commoners and lesser nobles may also submit themselves for the same treatment. Slaves may also beg to remain so for life.
    • Kushiels Legacy: Terre d'Ange has Houses which take in children, training them and then having them serve for sex until their servitude is completed. Both Kushiel and Alcuin are bonded as this.
  • December 16, 2013
    TwoGunAngel
    @We Are All Kosh: Hatcher, the Big Bad of the movie The Rundown, runs one of these operations in the modern day. With a paltry daily wage, the only way people can afford to work and live is to borrow from Hatcher, getting themselves so deep into debt that they have no hope of getting out of it. Mariana, the leader of the rebels fighting against Hatcher, calls this arrangement nothing less than slavery.
  • December 16, 2013
    StarSword
    ^That goes on Company Town.
  • December 16, 2013
    DAN004
    • In One Piece, Luffy took a meal in Baratie Restaurant... and realizes that he's penniless. He then got beat up by the restaurant owner Zeff and then is forced to work for a short while there, until Don Krieg and his pirate armada shows up.
  • December 16, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Seems more like Work Off The Debt.
  • December 16, 2013
    DAN004
    Well, isn't this already Work Off The Debt? Seems to me that this is just The Same But More...
  • December 16, 2013
    kjnoren
    Work Off The Debt is informal, very short-term, and not sanctioned by law or contract. Indentured Servitude can also come from other things than debts, though that is historically probably the most common reason.
  • December 16, 2013
    TrollBrutal
    • In Colonization, criminals and indentured servants emigrate from Europe. These people are ineffective at any skilled job, but may eventually become a free colonist through labor or military service (criminals become indentured servants first before turning into free colonists).
  • December 16, 2013
    Lakija
    I wonder if this example fits here:
    • In Memoirsofa Geisha, Saiyuri is sold to an okiya to become a geisha. She works there and her service pays off the expenses of her sumptuous kimono, wigs, and other items she needs to become a full geisha.
  • December 16, 2013
    RandomSurfer
    In Mercinaries of Gor Tarl comes across a free woman who is being used as a serving wench/prostitute to pay off her enormous debt at a wayside tavern. Except all her current earnings aren't even enough to cover her current bills re room & board, so her long-term debt isn't being reduced at all. Her only hope is for someone to come along and pay off her debts for her. She and a few other free women have been pulling this scam for quite a while but it finally catches up to them.
  • December 18, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Not seeing how the free woman is pulling a scam in that.
  • December 19, 2013
    StarSword
    Hats? Examples? Description thoughts?
  • December 21, 2013
    Astaroth
    • Not only Older Than Steam, but Older Than Feudalism: The Ancient Athenian lawmaker Draco passed a law that any man who was owed a debt by another could claim the indebted party as a slave until the debt was paid off.
  • December 21, 2013
    randomsurfer
    ^^I was trying to be concise but I guess I lost clear in the process. (I also misidentified the book - it was Renegades of Gor, not Mercenaries.)

    In the scam, the free woman goes somewhere (in this case an inn) and runs up a huge bill which she has no intent to pay and can't cover. She gets caught by the manager, who then puts her out in chains where she begs passers-by to redeem her debts. Someone inevitably does, with the assumption that the free woman will show some appreciation. Perhaps she claims that she doesn't have the money on her right now but if redeemed her (non existent) wealthy family will pay them back with interest. But the free woman, now being once again free, has no official obligation to be nice to her rescuer and just goes away, off to pull the same trick again. Those who are good at it can pull it off over and over again living in the lap of luxury for merely the cost of a few hours of begging while chained up. This is common enough that there is a semi-official name for this sort of behaviour: "debtor slut." But this time, during a large scale land war between the two most powerful city-states on Gor, she can't get away with it because nobody will redeem her.

    Long quote follows, click the pencil to read. note  (Addendum: I was actually trying to add an even longer quote but
  • December 22, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Ok. Problem I have with that being an example is the lack of a set term of indenture or legal arrangement enforcing it. It seems more like Work Off The Debt + Exploited Trope, unless the basic practice is legally allowed/broadly culturally accepted. (I know very little about Gor.)
  • December 24, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Well it only comes up in that one book but based on the exposition it seems that it's a fairly well-known practice.
  • January 9, 2014
    StarSword
    ^All right, let me see if I can condense that down to an Exploited Trope version.
  • January 9, 2014
    Arivne

  • January 10, 2014
    zarpaulus
    Does this include temporary enslavement as a penalty for criminal acts?

    Tabletop Games
    • In Ironclaw indentured servitude is one of the more serious penalties that can be applied to commoners in Calebria. And the Phelan normally impose fines for all crimes but if the accused cannot pay they are sold into slavery. The price list for Labor in the equipment chapter lists slaves with an indenture of one year or for life.

    Webcomics
    • In Looking For Group Cale saves a slave ship full of bankers who ruined their kingdom's economy, and were sentenced to five years of servitude as punishment.
  • January 10, 2014
    StarSword
    ^Yep, those count.
  • January 16, 2014
    StarSword
    Hats? Description thoughts? Examples?
  • January 17, 2014
    zarpaulus
    • In Earthrise Harat-sharin slaves sign themselves into temporary contracts, during their terms as slaves they have a lot of protections under the law and their savings accrue much higher interest than normal. Indentured servants on the other hand are convicts who have practically no rights.
  • January 18, 2014
    SKJAM
    • The Bible: Indentured servitude was common in Israel, to prevent it from becoming too permanent, the year of Jubilee was established; every fifty years all debts were forgiven and slaves set free.
  • January 18, 2014
    StarSword
    Hats?
  • January 19, 2014
    StarSword
    Launching.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=ox6ptf4co8rfix8pyds75zka&trope=IndenturedServitude