Sunday, February 25, 2007

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

Today I went and saw the new movie Amazing Grace. The movie tells the story of William Wilberforce, who, after his conversion to Christianity, became an advocate for the abolition of slavery. He also became an advocate for greater access to health care, prison reform and laws prohibiting cruelty to animals.

The movie has received pretty good reviews by critics and I concur. The movie moved along at a steady pace -- dramatizing the legislative and general political considerations involved in winning over converts to the cause. The movie goes from his young days as a member of Parliament (MP) to when abolition of slavery was finally passed by the British Parliament. The movie shows it being passed while he is still a member, but the link for him above indicates that it didn't pass until after his death. However, dramatization aside, this is a movie worth watching.

The struggle for justice continues to this day. Coinciding with the release of the movie, a group called The Amazing Change has formed to fight against modern forms of slavery: from child soldiers to forced prostitution.

To their issues I would like to add one more: debt slavery. The United Nations has recognized debt bondage (aka debt peonage in the US) as a modern form of slavery.


Peonage is a system where laborers are bound in servitude until their debts are paid in full. Those bound by such a system are known, in the US, as peons. Employers may extend credit [to] laborers to buy from employer-owned stores at inflated prices. This method is a variation of the truck system (or company store system), in which workers are exploited by agreeing to work for an insufficient amounts of goods and/or services. In these circumstances, peonage is a form of unfree labor. Such systems have existed in many places at many times throughout history.

Historical examples

* In Colonial America, some settlers used indentured service to obtain passage or an initial settlement, then continued working independently after completing their bonded labor.

* The American South - Such a system was often used in the southern United States after the American Civil War where African-American and poor white farmers, known as sharecroppers, were often extended credit to purchase seed and supplies from the owner of the land they farmed and pay the owner in a share of the crop.

* In Peru a peonage system existed from the 1500s until land reform in the 1950s. One estate in Peru that existed from the late 1500s until it ended had up to 1,700 peons employed and had a jail. Peons were expected to work a minimum of three days a week for their landlord and more if necessary to complete assigned work. Workers were paid a symbolic 2 cents per year. Workers were unable to travel outside of their assigned lands without permission and were not allowed to organize any independent community activity.

Modern views

According to Anti-Slavery International, "A person enters debt bondage when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment of a loan, or of money given in advance. Usually, people are tricked or trapped into working for no pay or very little pay (in return for such a loan), in conditions which violate their human rights. Invariably, the value of the work done by a bonded laborer is greater that the original sum of money borrowed or advanced."

At international law

Debt bondage has been defined by the United Nations as a form of "modern day slavery" and is prohibited by international law. It persists nonetheless especially in developing nations, which have few mechanisms for credit security or bankruptcy, and where fewer people hold formal title to land or possessions. According to some economists, for example Hernando de Soto, this is a major barrier to development in those countries - entrepreneurs do not dare take risks and cannot get credit because they hold no collateral and may burden families for generations to come.

Where children are forced to work because of debt bondage of the family, this is considered not only child labor, but a worst form of child labor in terms of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 of the International Labour Organization.

Despite the UN prohibition, Anti-Slavery International estimates that "between 10 and 20 million people are being subjected to debt bondage today."

In the bolded paragraph above, doesn't that sound a lot like where we are headed with our new bankruptcy laws?

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