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Indentured workers

An indentured servant or indentured labor is an employee (indenturee) within a system of unfree labor who is bound by a contract (indenture) to work for a particular employer for a fixed period of time. The employer is often permitted to assign the labor of an indenturee to a third party. Indenturees usually enter into an indenture for a specific payment or other benefit or to meet a legal obligation, such as debt bondage. Upon completion of the contract, indentured servants were granted freedom or occasionally plots of land. In many countries, systems of indentured labor have been outlawed.

Until the late 18th century, indentured servitude was very common in British North America. It was often a way for poor Europeans to emigrate to the American colonies: they signed an indenture in return for a costly passage. After their indenture expired, the immigrants were free to work for themselves or another employer. The consensus view among economic historians and economists is that indentured servitude occurred largely as "an institutional response to a capital market imperfection."

In some cases, the indenture was made with a ship's master, who on-sold the indenture to an employer in the colonies. Most indentured servants worked as farm laborers or domestic servants, although some were apprenticed to craftsmen.

The terms of an indenture were not always enforced by American courts, although runaways were usually sought out and returned to their employer.

Between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and American Revolution had come under indentures. However, while almost half the European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies were indentured servants, at any one time they were outnumbered by workers who had never been indentured, or whose indenture had expired, and thus free wage labor was the more prevalent for Europeans in the colonies. Indentured people were numerically important mostly in the region from Virginia north to New Jersey. Other colonies saw far fewer of them. The total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was about 500,000; of these 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. Another 300,000 were African victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, Tomlins estimates that 48% were indentured. About 75% of these were under the age of 25. The age of adulthood for men was 24 years (not 21); those over 24 generally came on contracts lasting about 3 years. Regarding the children who came, Gary Nash reports that "many of the servants were actually nephews, nieces, cousins and children of friends of emigrating Englishmen, who paid their passage in return for their labor once in America."


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