Ownership, Freedom and exploitation come in shades of grey. They exist on spectrums. Historians and sociologists have attempted to delineate categories on the spectrum in order to determine if we can really talk about slavery as something separate from other forms of forced labor or involuntary servitude.
The main category on this continual dependence other than slavery is Serfdom – this is usually associated with Europe which goes back to ancient Greece. Laborers, usually peasant farmers were free in the sense that they owned their own clothes, tools and livestock and devoured the fruits of their labor, but they were bound to the land on which they lived or to the landlord wherever he might go. Serfdom in Europe exists as the status of something separate from forced forms of labor or servitude.
The other main category is master servant relationship. As Dr Jonathan Brown, in his lecture Jonathan Brown Slavery explains, is when Serfdom disappeared in Western Europe, it was replaced by relationship between the labor and the landowner/ employee. Online our modern notion of worker’s contracts however, failing to live up to this contract was a criminal offense, only in the British colonies in North America did the notion of free labor eventually appeared in the 1700s. This did not make its way back to Europe until late 1870s.
The third shade of slavery is called the debt servitude has been one of the widespread forms of forced labor. When a person is unable to repay debt, he or she becomes a slave of the creditor. This was extremely common in South East Asia, where the Western model of slavery was rare.
Finally, the bonded labor or indebted servitude. This is similar to debt servitude and is very common in history. A person willingly enters into an agreement to exchange their labor and the loss of some freedoms for a fixed period of time in return for some service or upfront payment.
These shades are not fixed or solid. They bleed into each other, making it very hard to identify a clear line distinguishing slavery from there forms of coerced labor, reinforcing Dr Jonathan Brown’s notion of slavery being an ambiguous term.