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.
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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.
- She then keeps breaking things at a higher pace than she's paying the debt off, with it reaching more than double her initial debt at one point.
- In Maleficent fanfic, Diaval's servitude to Maleficent is often treated as this, with her setting him free when she has achieved her goals.
- 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 America, America, A weaselly American businessman routinely pays for the passage of young Greek men to America, in return for them working for him without pay for two years as shoeshine boys. The officials at Ellis Island even call Stavros and his fellow indentured servants "slaves." Stavros is perfectly OK with this, as he wants to go to America very very badly.
- In The Flower Girl, Kotpun's mother has basically become a slave, because she is so far in debt to the evil, explotative Pae family that she has no chance to work it off.
- 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[[note:*]]approximately, in Earth time[[/note]] 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 due to being a "wolfling" species that has not gone through this period of indenture itself, 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 The Protector of the Small, 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) The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy 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 Phèdre and Alcuin are bonded as this, and Phèdre 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 the scar.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bardic Voices makes the statement that indentured service was worse than slavery because slavery had rules to prevent exploitation of the workers that indentured service didn't have, and those who owned the debt were free to rack up spurious charges to extend the length of service.
- Simone, from The Saints, threatens Tori and Sonia with a life time of servitude if they fail to accomplish her request
- Heralds of Valdemar: While slavery is illegal in Valdemar, indentures are legal. A "bonded" child has to serve the bond holder until he's 16 for no payment; Skif's mother "forgot" to bond Skif to his uncle Londer. Prisoners can also be sentenced to indentured servitude on farms (would have happened to Kalchan if he'd survived his head injury) or mines (Master Cole tries to claim Mags and the other mine-slaves are indentured criminals).
- This is how Wulfgar met Bruenor Battlehammer in The Icewind Dale Trilogy. After being captured during the barbarian attack on Ten-Towns, Wulfgar is indentured to Bruenor for five years.
- The Schooled In Magic series takes place in a medieval world type setting. While not directly applicable to any of the main characters in the series, there is plenty to imply that this practice is a normal part of life in the Nameless World (such as the description of Lords and the serfs that live on their land, or the description of servants in magical households who are spelled into a mindless obedient state even though they are not slaves technically).
- In The Road to Mars, some space colonies were founded by people who agreed to be indentured to the company that funded their transport to the outer solar system for a certain number of years. Then they discovered that the contract was for local years, rather than Earth years, which meant that the indenture would be most or all of their expected life span, given that they were living in the outer solar system. This was explicitly mentioned to be illegal, but just try finding a lawyer in the barely-colonized outer solar system in those days.
- In the Eldraeverse the Empire of the Star detests slavery to the point of blowing up planets that supported it. But you may end up indentured if you default on the wrong loans.
- 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.
- 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).
- Earth2 has the mechanic mention that he's still paying off his grandparents' debt for getting to the stations from Earth, and that he only took a dangerous mission because the pay would allow him to clear the debt and ensure his daughter wasn't burdened with it.
- Done in Murder, She Wrote where a French chef is forced to work at a small-time diner near Cabot Cove because the business' owner had paid for his work visa and ticket to the US and is unhappy with his job so he intentionally botches his work. He isn't French - he's an American who went to France to go to culinary school but flunked out so he faked his identity to get back home on a work job. He can't quit because otherwise he'd have to pay the entirety of his ticket and face fraud charges.
Mythology and Religion
- The Bible: Indentured servitude was common in Israel. To prevent it from becoming too permanent, the year of Jubilee was established in the Book of Leviticus; every fifty years all debts were forgiven and slaves set free. This only applied to Hebrew slaves, though-foreign slaves could be held for life, as inherited property. Women were also not included. Additionally, indentured Hebrew men could become permanently enslaved "voluntarily" if they wanted to remain with a slave wife their master had given them and any children they had with her, who otherwise would stay when they were freed. One suspects the masters likely gave indentured men wives just to coerce them into this...
- 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.
- In Myriad Song many of the Myriad worlds practice indentured servitude for a variety of means, though outright slavery is officially banned since the Syndics vanished.
- The majority of the humans that come to Maifaux do so under a Guild contract, which they can supposedly work off within two years. Since Malifaux is a Company Town where the Guild controls everything, many find themselves going into even greater debt once they get there.
- 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).
- Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! has this as part of Aurelia's unique gameplay mechanics - she has a skill tree dedicated to buffing other player's characters in exchange for taking damage for her.
- 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.
- In Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger Turing-level AIs have to serve a period of indentured servitude to pay off the cost of their manufacture. After that they're free citizens. But some unscrupulous owners tamper with their clocks so they think they still have decades left on their term, or replace their cortex with a copy printed off their Matter Replicator that thought it was fresh from the factory.
- In Terinu criminals are commonly sold into indentured servitude, in the first chapter the titular character, a former unwilling Space Pirate, is auctioned off to an unethical Biotech company.
- Escape from Terra: Belter criminal punishments tend towards fines or indentures. Some would-be pirates are almost sold to a pig farm but their bleeding-heart advocate manages to get them to pay their fines off on their own terms, one gets a job at a pig farm, another growing cannabis (no prohibition), and the third hustles cards until he gets into a fight and disappears, raising the others' shares. Later a juvie is given a choice between the pig farm or the Space Scouts, the idea being the latter would teach him a lesson.
- The practice is Older Than Feudalism in Real Life. Throughout history, most societies have permitted enslavement of debtors; in many ancient societies, debt slavery was the primary form of involuntary labor. In general, some form of debt servitude is one of only two realistic options for dealing with insolvency, the other being the modern solution—bankruptcy protection and discharge of debt. (Debt servitude favors creditors; bankruptcy favors debtors.)
- 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. This proved so unpopular and destabilizing to the Athenian system that when called upon to reform Draco's laws a few generations later, Solon abolished enslavement for debt. This probably helped drive the expansion of the Athenian maritime empire, as it meant that large landowners who wanted to use slave labor to work their lands either had to rely on the slaves they already had (and their descendants) or import them from elsewhere.
- The Romans also had a system of debt slavery, which they abolished as part of the long struggle for rights for the plebeian class in 326 BCE. This probably helped drive the expansion of Rome's empire, as it meant that large landowners who wanted to use slave labor to work their lands either had to rely on the slaves they already had (and their descendants) or import them from elsewhere. (The fact that both Athens and Rome's abolition of slavery for debt seemed to have factored into their respective rises as Great Powers led Niccolò Machiavelli to recommend that modern republics forbid the enslavement of their own citizens.)
- 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—in fact, one of the reasons for its introduction in the Colonies was ex-indentures causing their former owners political problems—but was still occasionally seen as late as 1917.