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Indentured Servitude

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Indentured Servitude is a historical labor system 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 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.

Of course, more predatory and oppressive economic systems shows a tendency to attempt to make this indenture indefinite through underhanded and shady means, usually by way of blatantly and constantly Moving the Goalposts. The most common method is that the owner makes sure to charge the indentured workers for their room, board, and other necessary services at an inflated price they cannot possibly pay, and then adding that cost to the debt they have to work off. While such a conduct actually is the very definition of "debt slavery", Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil after all, so expect the ruling class to insist that such a system is still "indentured servitude" simply because it doesn't sound quite as bad as outright calling it slavery. As both real life history and the current state of affairs in some poorer countries readily show, this is disturbingly often Truth in Television.

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 & 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.
  • 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 reminiscence to new world immigration in Real Life section, Monster Musume has the Broker charging Liminals who wished to get into Japan but isn't selected for the exchange program, and they will have to work the debt off. While they can choose any work they want, his company does provide them with work if needed, and pays well enough that most Liminals choose to keep working for him even after their debt is paid 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.

    Comic Books 
  • In Jay Eaton's short comic Airsled, this is Piawii's predicament; the local quartermaster Vrazi owns their contract and insists that they'll be free to do as they please in two seasons, but Booroo the stablemaster sets their own opinion out bluntly.
    Booroo: They're a slave with a timer, Vrazi!

    Fan Works 
  • Kingdom Hearts fanfic The Antipode. Discussed. At one point, Louie is said to have tried to buy Geppetto's puppet son, only for said son to win Louie's temporary indentured servitude in a game of poker.
  • In Maleficent fanfic, Diaval's servitude to Maleficent is often treated as this, with her setting him free when she has achieved her goals.
  • Vow of Nudity: In one story, Haara raids a chateau owned by a marquis who was intentionally driving commoner families into debt through his network of crooked toll roads, hiring their most attractive daughters into servitude at his chateau, and then charging them for room & board plus paying them exclusively through promissory notes to ensure they can never pay off their families debts. Haara murders him and then divides his money and untraceable assets among the servants before they flee the mansion.

  • 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.
  • This is a plot point in Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper. Erika is indentured as a seamstress in Madame Carp's dress shop until she can repay a large sum of money her parents borrowed when she was a baby, but an early conversation makes it clear that Madame Carp is charging interest on the debt and never really plans to let Erika go. It's also heavily implied that Erika is being charged for basic commodities as well, allowing Madame Carp to keep her even longer. When Princess Annelise shows up while Erika is off standing in for the princess, Madame Carp promptly locks her in the shop and puts her to work, berating her for slacking off. This comes back to bite her later, as Annelise pays off Erika's debt, freeing her immediately, and the castle stops patronizing Madame Carp's shop due to her unethical practices, putting her out of business.
  • In The Flower Girl, Kotpun's mother has basically become a slave, because she is so far in debt to the evil, exploitative Pae family that she has no chance to work it off.
  • Kavi is a short film about a boy in India who does not even realize that he was Born into Slavery, because a decade ago his father got 10,000 rupees into debt and couldn't get out.
  • Pitfall: Technically the miners in the Japanese mining industry aren't slaves because they are being paid poverty-level wages. But they are basically indentured servants as they are not allowed to leave wherever they are laboring, and are subject to arrest as "deserters" if they do.
  • Rachel and the Stranger: Rachel is a "bondwoman" who was sold into indentured servitude because her father fell into debt. David buys her to be his bride, which sort of frees her, but sort of doesn't as she's basically still his indentured servant. This all sets up a Marriage Before Romance plot.
  • Revanche: How Tamara is kept as essentially a Sex Slave at the brothel, and Alex's motive for the bank robbery, to pay off her debt to her pimp/captor.
  • In Strange Frame: Love And Sax, after the Earth became uninhabitable, everyone migrated out to the Jovian moons (or "The Joves" for short.) In order for the less affluent folks to get out there, a system of indentured servitude was instituted whereby they could work to pay off the costs associated with interplanetary travel. Of course, the costs ended up being incredibly high, and thus the indenture has been passed down to the descendants of those original refugees, creating a more or less permanent underclass.

  • 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".
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's "Future History" universe Venus is colonized primarily with indentured servants, referred to as "clients". "The Logic of Empire" starts with two upper class friends arguing over whether those clients are slaves, with the protagonist arguing that they're just employees who need draconian contracts because people of "that class" are lazy, he changes his tune some time after finding himself shanghaied on a slave ship to Venus.
  • Institutionalized indenture is constant in the Uplift universe. All new intelligent life is created when a star-faring 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 yearsnote  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 Protector of the Small, Keladry buys the two-year indenture of a servant boy who was being abused by his current master. Indentured servants do have certain rights that are guaranteed by law—their master is supposed to provide them proper clothing and shelter, but as with the boy Keladry helps, it's not always followed.
  • 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: The Houses in the City of Elua and some private parties in Terre d'Ange take in children, training them as high-class prostitutes, paying off the debt by doing so and freed when their term has been 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. Later, Phèdre goes on to fix the holes in the rules that result in a situation like that. Further, they aren't allowed to have sex with anyone before turning sixteen and the laws are strict on consent-they cannot be forced without it being legally rape, while the profession in general is highly respected, with legal protection.
  • In The Orphan Train Adventures book "Caught in the Act", Marta had been an indentured servant to the Friedrich family, who paid for her trip to the US. However, her term is over before the beginning of the book, and she leaves towards the end after having threatened to repeatedly.
  • 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.
  • The Murderbot Diaries. This is standard behavior in the Corporate Rim. The corporations use propaganda to convince their "citizens" that everywhere else in the galaxy is hopelessly primitive and they should be grateful for their indentures. Many corporates fully believe this, and dream not of leaving the companies that oppress them, but only of being able to buy their kids into management-track positions. In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot encounters some workers on the way to a colony whom it's implied have been tricked by the local years scam, and the plot in Fugitive Telemetry is centered around an Underground Railroad for those seeking to escape such a colony.
  • 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.
  • In A Million Open Doors, Caledony's economy is based upon mass perpetual indenture. Since the planet's almost completely un-terraformed and thus inhospitable to human life, everyone relies on the government for everything, and the government charges money for nearly everything, leaving all the citizens in a debt that must be paid off through labor.
  • The Stormlight Archive: A common part of the culture. Every slave has a debt and must be given wages; the slave can choose to put their wages to their debt, and eventually be freed. There are also rules about the misuse of slaves, such as putting them in suicidal situations. Both of these things rarely work as intended. The slave debt is many times more what they are sold for, and there is little protecting slaves if traders choose to lie about the size of the debt. Furthermore, powerful people can just ignore the rules on treatment of slaves. Highprince Sadeas is famous for killing hundreds of slaves a month in his bridge crews, but no one can do anything about it.
  • The Citizen Series: The Cutter Stream Colonies are based on the mid-Atlantic states during the late colonial period, and "servants" form the bottom rung of what amounts to a Fantastic Caste System. A specific distinction is drawn between them and "employees" (free commoners who work for pay); the latter tend to be more expensive.
  • At the end of The Fairy Godmother, Madame Klovis and her two daughters are arrested for defrauding just about every merchant in town. Since they have nowhere near enough money to pay off their debts, even after the Klovis mansion is turned over to the creditors, they get a choice: work as indentured servants in an inn until they've earned enough money to pay their share of the debts, or go to a workhouse ... where their wages will never come close to paying off the debts, so that one's a life sentence.
  • The Ship Who...: Technically speaking, the Wetware CPU of each "brainship" is indentured to the shipping line they work for. In practice, there are so many strict regulations about their pay and working conditions that the (admittedly hefty) cost of their training, equipping them with a life-support "shell" and then providing them with a ship is treated more like a glorified student loan in-universe.
  • In William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and associated stories an economic collapse allowed the Mega Corps to lock most of their employees into nigh-inescapable exclusive contracts, high-ranking scientists and executives are often kept in gilded arcology apartments to prevent them trying to cheat their contracts. For that reason one of the more lucrative "below-board" professions is "extracting" scientists who want to (often after persuasion by the extractors) change jobs. The short story "New Rose Hotel" and Turner's plot arc in the novel Count Zero center on extractions that got complicated.
  • Deeplight: Criminals are sometimes sold at the Appraisal on Lady's Crave, most end up working the oars on ships. Hark doubts he'd survive his own three-year sentence in the appaling conditions.
  • The Daevabad Trilogy: One djinn pirate captain recruits crew from the Fantastic Underclass by promising them riches after ten years of service — enforced by an implanted Power Nullifier and the threat of death if they try to escape early. Being a singularly awful man, he takes every chance to claim that the crew have added to their debts.
  • In Girls Kingdom, Matsuri has a supposedly unbreakable Seraph contract with Saeko, who has taken on her family's debt in return for having Matsuri work for her at Amonotsuka Academy. In book four, Matsuri pays off the contract and rather than try to keep her on with financial tricks, she lets Matsuri go, breaking the contract. This starts up a whole new plot, revolving around getting the contract restored.
  • The Chronicles of Dorsa: Lord M'Tongliss has Fesulian mercenaries who serve him under a contract for seven years, and they can return home at the end if they're still alive.
  • Rebuild World: The Cyberpunk government takes a harsh view on debt, and servitude is the standard method of repaying it for hunters. Akira ends up selling Healing Potion to Revin, who can't pay for it, resulting in the Arms Dealer Katsuragi replacing Akira's medicine and taking on their debt, exploiting Revin and his teammates in a Moving the Goalposts manner. After Babalodo can't pay the 10-billion-aurum bill that Carol saddles him with for a night with her, he ends up paying it off as Viola's bodyguard. There's a long-standing arrangement between Carol and Viola, who trades indebted hunters in what's likened to human trafficking.

    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, causing an angry mob to trash 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.
  • The Magicians: In return for getting back use of his hands to do magic, Penny signs a contract with the Neitherlands Library to work a million years for them, in his lifetime and afterward.
  • Space: Above and Beyond. In the pilot episode, two of the characters mention being in indentured service to the company sending them out into space since they were children. It's not that that bothers them, but the fact that political considerations mean that one of them has to stay behind on Earth while an InVitro takes his place.
  • American Gods (2017): The convicts transported to the Thirteen Colonies receive this as their sentence, for either a set number of years or life. Essie McGowan gets her master to free and then marry her.
  • Dollhouse: It's never called out by name, but this is what the Dolls amount to. They have all signed contracts with the Dollhouse to give away their bodies for a certain in number of years, during which they are fitted with new personality downloads and hired out to rich clients on 'engagements', often sexual in nature. Of course, these contracts are illegal by modern standards. One ex-doll even tries to go public after her years of indentured servitude are up to expose the Dollhouse. Adele DeWitt, who manages the Los Angeles Dollhouse, finally decides to rebel against her bosses when they start selling bodies on a permanent basis.
  • The Mandalorian. Kuiil is an Ugnaught vapor farmer who was sold to the Empire as a child and had to earn his freedom through work—the work of three human lifetimes, according to him. He's so insistent on never serving anyone else again that he refuses to accept any payment from the Mandalorian, helping him on a purely voluntary basis.

    Mythology & Religion 
  • The Bible: Indentured servitude was common in Israel. To prevent it from becoming too permanent, the year of shemita was established in the Book of Leviticus; every seven 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. These "permanently" enslaved Hebrew slaves were freed in the Year of the Jubilee, which occured every fifty years, whether they liked it or not. One suspects the masters likely gave indentured men wives just to coerce them into this...

  • Midst: Until you break even with the Trust, you belong to them. People can easily be trapped in debt for life for circumstances beyond their control. As a result, the hopelessly indebted sometimes try to breach contract and flee—but if they do, they're hunted by the law until the day they die.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Magic: The Gathering: In the Ravnica setting, people who die with outstanding debts to the Orzhov Syndicate end up as indentured spirits, meaning they will spend at least part of their afterlives working off their debt to the Guild of Deals through menial labor. And if the debt is big enough, a spirit may need thousands of years to work it off.
  • Malifaux: The majority of the humans that come to Malifaux 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.
  • 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.
  • In Nomine: All Lilim are expected to pay off the cost of their own birth. On creation, they may be traded to another Prince or may choose to owe Lilith nine favors, with their freedom given to them once these are filled. This is simple enough in theory, but two issues complicate the Tempters' quest for freedom: firstly, Lilith can and does sell these favors to Princes, other demons, Lucifer himself, spirits of the Marches, mortals, and occasionally even archangels. Secondly, Lilim who want to get anywhere in Hell will need to take on more debts in exchange for alliances and favors, burying themselves ever deeper in duties owed. All Lilim dream of someday paying off their last debt and becoming Free Lilim; very few ever actually get there.
  • Shadowrun: The perjorative "Wageslave" is frequently quite literal. Many corps set up extraterritorial Company Towns that use their exclusive scrip. Extraction of contract-locked scientists is a common runner job, but some runners skip the "persuasion" stage and just drug the target before carrying them out.

  • A variant in Naughty Marietta. Marietta (or Marie if you're watching the 1935 movie) impersonates a casquette girl, casquette girls being young women who were sent all expenses paid to French Louisiana with the expectation they'd marry a French colonist. If they didn't, they had to go back to France.
  • The apprenticeship system was similar to this: the apprentice would be indentured to a master, the debt in this case being for the training the apprentice received. This is a plot point in Pirates of Penzance, as Frederick's terms of indenture are not "until he's twenty-one years old," but "until his twenty-first birthday", and since he was born on February 29, technically that won't happen until he's in his mid-80s.
  • In Purlie Victorious a wealthy Southern landowner takes advantage of the fact that he owns most of the land and debt of the local Black population in order to force them to work for him in a manner similar to slavery despite the play taking place in the Civil Rights era. This was Truth in Television for many rural Black communities at the time.

    Video Games 
  • Age of Wonders: Planetfall: The Syndicate's basic infantry unit is the Indentured, cheap squads of Slave Mooks equipped with mind-control collars. The unit's Flavor Text describes a man becoming indentured after one House purchased his great-grandfather's debts, which had fallen into collection for five generations.
  • Gar in Arcanum considers himself to be an indentured servant of H.T. Parnell, who paid Gar enough money to rescue his family from poverty in return for Gar performing as a freak-show attraction in Parnell's museum of oddities.
  • 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 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).
  • in Crysis 3 most of the enemy soldiers you encounter are under C.E.L.L. Work Away Debt program, despise being advertised as a form of indentured servitude and C.E.L.L. has enough political and economic power to keep it as slavery, thanks to their unlimited energy distribution forcing many people to become indebted with C.E.L.L.
  • In Elite Dangerous, the Empire practices indentured servitude, and criticizes the unregulated and black market slave trafficking in Federation space. Empire stations will even offer missions to players to rescue slaves to be made into Imperial 'slaves' for a duration, which have a much higher quality of life. As they value honor above all else, Imperials consider it more honorable to sell yourself into temporary slavery than to default on a debt.
  • 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.
  • Hardspace: Shipbreaker gives the player a front row seat to the sheer insidiousness of this practice. Right out of the gate you're saddled with a billion dollar debt to LYNX due to the costs of getting you to outer space and it's just the tip of the iceberg: equipment and habitation rental fees, interest, and other miscellaneous fees end up costing you $500k a day. You also have to buy your own oxygen, tether charges, suit repairs, equipment repair kits, and thruster fuel on site. Once your certification level is high enough, you can start using your LYNX tokens to purchase all your Cutter gear from the company, removing the associated rental fees and reducing your bill to $75,000 a day before interest on your ever-decreasing debt kicks in. And in the off chance that you do pay off the debt before finishing the story, LYNX will simply tell you that they need to recalculate a bunch of things they "missed" in the initial estimate and that you have to keep working until then.
  • 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 as a compromise solution: the company rep doesn't support indenture and so won't take her directly, but Shepard suggests buying the contract, freeing the quarian, and then garnishing a smaller part of her wages to pay off the debt. (Related conversations also touch on some Culture Clash about the practice: the asari assume that humans' low opinion of slavery or indenture comes from their conflicts with batarian slavers rather than humans' past slavery of each other.)
  • The backstory to Offworld Trading Company has an economic crisis causing many people to end up in the newly re-established debtor's prisons. Reclamation Industries recruits their colonists from those prisons under contracts guaranteeing them total debt forgiveness after five years of labor.
  • The "Space Slaves" commodity in Rebel Galaxy actually consists of human and alien indentured workers, but trading in them is still illegal on most stations and can get your ship raided by the militia.
  • Stellaris allows authoritarian MegaCorp empires to choose a civic allowing this. The tooltip assures us that "It has little to do with the barbaric practice of slavery - these workers are merely paying off their debts... indefinitely."
  • Warframe: The Corpus do this on a regular basis, even enslaving the children of debtors who didn't finish paying off their debt. They also include many predatory practices such as selling unnecessary insurance, making the debtors buy expensive cybernetic upgrades to stay competitive, and repossessing those same upgrades if they fall behind on their payments, despite the fact that this kills the debtor. They even charge debtors for the privilege of working to pay off their debts. They even have colonies full of debt slaves, with one, Fortuna, being a location you can visit.

  • 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 A.I.s 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.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: In "Homer vs. Patty and Selma", Patty and Selma start treating Homer like an indentured servant when he's forced to ask them for help paying off a debt, making him give them both foot massages, light their cigarettes, and pretend to be a dog for their amusement.
  • The Venture Brothers: Steve Summers is an Expy of The Six Million Dollar Man, right down to the price tag...which he is expected to pay back, on a government salary, no less. Small wonder he runs away with Sasquatch.

    Real Life 
  • 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 (the other being enslavement by being captured in war). 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—and importing slaves was much easier if your country was fighting wars of conquest and taking prisoners. Fun fact: Draco's reformed and clarified legal code, which erred heavily on the side of brutal punitive measures wherever earlier laws were unclear, and used excessive punishments like the above debt slavery, is the reason we still refer to extremely harsh sets of rules as Draconian today. (The fact that his name means "Dragon" is just icing on the cake.)
  • The Romans also had a system of debt slavery; however, this practice was abolished in 326 BCE as part of the The Roman Republic's long struggle for civil and political rights for the plebeian class. 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--and importing slaves was much easier if your country was fighting wars of conquest and taking prisoners. (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 British and Irish people 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. It was most popular in the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. A bit south, Maryland and Virginia also saw decent activity; the Virginia Company was in fact the first to use this system. The practice fell into disuse especially in New England and the Southern colonies as wage labor (in New England) and African slavery (in the South) 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 World War I.
  • After the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture and his successors, desperate to earn Haiti some capital after years of revolutionary bloodshed, implemented a system of forced labor that pushed former slaves back onto the plantations, albeit with pay and without the worst abuses of the St. Domingue era.
  • While it was long believed that the Egyptian pyramids and temples were built with slave labor, it's now thought this was closer to the truth: the Nile flooding for several months every year meant you suddenly had a glut of physical laborers with nothing to do, might as well put them to work on public monuments. One of the earliest recorded labor strikes in history even happened over corrupt officials not paying the workers.
  • Colonial India had the Company introduce the zamindaari (landowner) system which took this practice and extended it across generations. If some peasant owed a landowner a debt (usually a tax debt or rent) but couldn’t pay due to the harvest failing, his entire family had to Work Off the Debt - for multiple generations. The debtor’s sons, grandsons, great grandsons and so on would literally be born into debt bondage. Thankfully this system was abolished when India gained its independence, but a lack of land reforms led to continuing political tensions and violence between agricultural workers and landowners.