Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
World History Volume 2, from 1400

10.3 Coerced and Semicoerced Labor

World History Volume 2, from 140010.3 Coerced and Semicoerced Labor

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the abolition of slavery and serfdom during the Second Industrial Revolution
  • Describe forms of coerced and semicoerced labor that existed during the Second Industrial Revolution

Most workers in industrialized countries during the period of the Second Industrial Revolution were free. “Free” in this context is a relative term, however. Their employers could not buy or sell them or their labor. They were legally able to leave their places of employment if they chose. But the extreme poverty of many workers makes it difficult to think of them as truly free. They toiled for long hours at dangerous jobs they hated because the alternative was homelessness and starvation. Nevertheless, they had advantages and choices, even if limited ones, that many other nineteenth-century workers did not have. For many people, to one degree or another, employers still had the legal right to compel their labor.

Slavery and Serfdom

By the end of the nineteenth century, chattel slavery, in which one human being is owned by another and can be bought or sold, lingered in only a few places on the globe. Some nations had already abolished slavery before the Second Industrial Revolution began. Japan officially did so in the sixteenth century. Britain abolished the slave trade and ended slavery completely in 1834. France banned slavery in 1848, freeing nearly all enslaved people in the Caribbean. In India, the Penal Code of 1861 punished those who attempted to enslave others. The Netherlands and the United States were among the last industrialized nations to end the practice, with the Dutch freeing enslaved people in the South American colony of Suriname in 1863 and the United States abolishing slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to its Constitution in 1865.

Most Latin American nations ended slavery following their wars of independence in the early nineteenth century. Brazil, however, with its primarily agricultural economy, long resisted reformers’ calls for emancipation. In 1850, the country finally bowed to pressure from its chief trading partner, Great Britain, which had assumed the moral duty of abolishing slavery around the world soon after it liberated its own enslaved people. Brazil ended its slave trade, and in 1871 it passed a law that freed all children born to enslaved women from that point forward. In 1885, it decreed that all enslaved people would be free when they reached their sixtieth birthdays. Finally, it completely abolished slavery in 1888.

Along with British pressure, other factors influenced Brazil’s decision. The battlefield performance of enslaved men during Brazil’s 1864–1870 war with Paraguay led many White soldiers to admire the Afro-Brazilian fighters, and they became reluctant to recapture runaways. Many White Brazilians also believed their nation could not become modern and industrialized if it possessed a large population of African ancestry. For them, getting rid of slavery was the first step on the path to creating a Brazil that was more White.

Serfdom also largely disappeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. Serfs were unfree peasants who were legally bound to work the land on which they lived, land that was owned by another. Russia held nearly all Europe’s remaining serfs. Approximately eleven million were owned by private citizens, and another twelve to thirteen million were owned by the state. Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861. This did not necessarily improve serfs’ lives, however. Though emancipated, they were required to serve their masters for two more years. They were then allowed to remain on the lands they had worked, but they had to purchase them, often at high prices. Domestic serfs, those who had been household servants, received no land. In some parts of the Russian empire, serfdom lingered on for a few more decades.

Contract Labor and Debt Bondage

While slavery and serfdom disappeared from the industrialized world in the nineteenth century, other means remained for securing a long-term or permanent labor force for both agricultural and industrial production. Two such systems are contract labor and debt bondage. Contract labor, a system in which people sign contracts promising to perform work in exchange for a fee, still exists today. Indentured servitude is a form of contract labor in which people pledge to work for an agreed period of time for an agreed form of compensation. Although indentured servants are not enslaved, while their contract is in force, their employers have nearly total control over them, and they are not allowed to leave their service. Debt bondage is a system in which a person who owes money works (or provides someone else to work) for the creditor until the debt has been repaid through labor. Indentured servitude and debt bondage are similar and were common in the later nineteenth century; they differ from slavery in that, theoretically, at a point in time the bondage will end.

In the United States, indentured servitude had been common during the colonial period, and it was the means by which many Europeans obtained passage to North America. The practice had largely died out in the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century but still existed in a few places. In Hawaii, plantation owners used contract labor from Portugal, China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to grow their crops, especially sugarcane. Many Chinese immigrants also came to the United States as contract laborers. They were not working under a contract with their employer. Instead, they had agreed to work for one of their compatriots to pay for their passage to the United States. Many Chinese workers were taken abroad by the Six Companies, a Chinese-owned business formed to transport Chinese immigrants to North America, and they had to repay their debt to the company before they were allowed to return home.

Other parts of the world also relied on various forms of contract labor once slavery had been abolished. During the nineteenth century, Australia depended on indentured laborers from the islands of the Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa, and the Gilbert Islands (now called Kiribati). A flourishing trade also provided Chinese and Indian laborers to work in Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and European colonies in Africa. These laborers were underpaid, overworked, brutally disciplined, and given only enough food to allow them to work. Reports about their poor treatment convinced many industrialized countries to end participation in the trade. Britain prohibited its ships from carrying Asian laborers to Cuba and Peru, two of the main destinations. In 1874, Portugal, following Britain’s example, prevented the trade from being carried on in Macao, a Portuguese colony in Asia through which many Chinese laborers were shipped elsewhere in the world.

Debt bondage was also a common source of labor in some parts of the world in the late nineteenth century. In the 1880s in Japan, faced with an economic depression that led many to bankruptcy and starvation, parents “rented” their children, especially daughters, to factories. The girls were provided with food and shelter, and money they earned was sent home to their parents. Daughters might also be hired out to brothels; dutiful ones might make the decision themselves to spare their parents the pain. In the United States, debt bondage was a common means by which southern farmers kept a labor force of African American people and poor White people at their disposal. It also trapped many Asian laborers who immigrated to South America, even after their contracts had expired.

In some places, debt bondage was nearly impossible to escape. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers working other people’s land depended on the harvest for their income. In the time before the harvest, they purchased necessities like food on credit from a local store, which was usually owned by the landlord. They also often needed to purchase seed and use equipment owned by the landlord. When they sold their crops following the harvest, they repaid their debts. Often, the prices of goods and the interest charged by the store owner were so high that income from the harvest was insufficient to satisfy the workers’ debts, and the unpaid portion was added to the amount borrowed against the next harvest. Some employers paid their workers with scrip, a substitute for money that could be exchanged only at the store the employer owned; because they could not shop elsewhere, laborers had no choice but to go into debt. In Japanese brothels, the young women were not paid in scrip, but the cost of everything provided for them, including clothing and food, was recorded, and the women could not go free until they had repaid both the original sum exchanged for them and the total cost of their upkeep.

Penal Labor

Forced labor assigned as punishment to those convicted of crimes, known as penal labor, was also employed in the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1788 to 1868, British convicts, most of whom had been found guilty of nonviolent crimes, were given the choice of languishing in a cell or being transported to the colony of Australia. If they chose Australia, after an ocean journey that might last eight months, they had to endure seven to ten years of labor. The unlucky might be assigned to work gangs, building roads or constructing government buildings. Others went to work for farmers or merchants. After they had served their sentences, they were free to remain in Australia as settlers or return to England.

Like Britain, Russia used convicted prisoners to satisfy the need for labor in distant parts of the empire, where it was difficult to attract voluntary settlers. The katorga system sent prisoners to Siberia and the Russian Far East (Figure 10.14). The men, often political prisoners, typically felled timber or worked in mines. Sometimes they were rented out to private employers.

This photograph shows a group of workers standing in a line. Men in military style uniforms stand near the workers. Several log cabins are visible behind the men. A mountain is visible in the distance.
Figure 10.14 The Katorga System. Prisoners building the Amur Cart Road through an isolated part of Russia in the early twentieth century pose for a photograph. The railway extended for hundreds of miles through forests and swamps. (credit: “Russian prisoners of Amur Railway” by Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Penal Labor in Russia

This excerpt is from the 1887 book In Russian and French Prisons by Peter Kropotkin. The book is based on Kropotkin’s experiences as a young military officer in the 1860s, when he first became interested in the question of crime and punishment and served on a committee for the reform of the Russian penal system. In this excerpt, he describes the treatment of prisoners working at a Siberian gold mine, including punishments such as the blackholes—“the warm one, and the cold one underground with a temperature at freezing point.”

As a rule, the hard-labour convict must be kept in prison, at the mines, only for about one-third of the time to which he has been condemned. Beyond this time, he must be settled in the village close by the mine, in a separate house, with his family, if his wife has followed him; he is bound to go to work like other convicts, but without chains, and he has his own house and hearth. It is obvious that this law might be an immense benefit for the convicts, but its provisions are marred by the manner in which it is applied. The liberation of the convict depends entirely upon the caprice of the superintendent of the mine. Moreover, with the absurd payment for his labour, which hardly reaches a few shillings per month in addition to the ration of flour, the liberated convict falls, with but few exceptions, into the most dreadful misery. . . . The punishments depend also entirely upon the fancy of the superintendent of the works, and mostly they are atrocious. The privation of food and the blackhole . . . are considered as merely childish punishments. Only the plete, the cat-o’-nine-tails, distributed at will, for the slightest delinquency, and to the amount dictated by the good or bad temper of the manager, is considered as a punishment. It is so usual a thing in the minds of the overseers, that “hundred pletes,” a hundred lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, are ordered with the same easiness as one week’s incarceration would be ordered in European prisons.

—Peter Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons

  • Based on this excerpt, explain why the author later calls the superintendent of the mines “a king in his dominions.”
  • Why do you think the privation of food and the “blackhole” are considered “childish punishments” in comparison to a whipping?

Many other countries, such as the United States, also used convicts for labor or rented them for use by private citizens. After the abolition of slavery, the southern U.S. states often required African American men to sign yearly contracts with White employers. A man who did not have such a contract could be arrested for vagrancy and then forced to sign a labor contract and work in agriculture. People found guilty of and imprisoned for actual crimes were also often required to perform free labor, either inside or outside the prison. Prisoners were often used to build roads in the southern United States.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Mar 25, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.