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Indentured servitude is, essentially, debt bondage. By definition, an indentured servant would work under a contract that specified the terms of his indenture, especially how long he would work until his indenture was redeemed. However, one business owner here in North Carolina has found a way to keep two of his workers in perpetual economic bondage. It's been easy for him because one of the workers in question, "John," is a paroled felon and uniquely vulnerable for exploitation.

I'm hoping that someone reads this and provides me with contact information for ex-convict prisoner rights groups or something that can help John and his fellow worker, his girlfriend "Mary," get some representation and some help. Right now they're, essentially, economic slaves with no hope of escape.

John is a maintenance man and all-around handyman for a local establishment. (You understand why I'm not naming names, either of the people involved or the business.) For five years he's worked there, for a minimal wage and a room in which to live. The same place also employs his girlfriend Mary, who is the only permanent custodian/housekeeper. The place is owned by a prominent family in the area, and managed by the son-in-law of the main owner. Let's call son-in-law "Dick."

John is a convicted felon, on parole from prison in another state. He has to pay most of his earnings as restitution for his crime, leaving him with very little at the end of a pay period. Mary, who shares the single on-site room with John, makes just a hair over minimum wage. Neither have any benefits at all, and they bring home so little from their earnings that after work, they often have nothing to eat. John has had his drivers license revoked, forcing him to rely on Mary for transportation. Often, after they pay bills, restitution, and put gas in the tank, they have nothing left.

Dick just bought a fancy new house (their last fancy house wasn't good enough for them -- their words, not mine). For the last three weeks, John has been spending all of his time at the new house, doing everything from installing new floors and electrical wiring to tearing down walls. Dick owes him nearly $1000 for his work, but has consistently refused to pay him. (John has had to do a lot of work for Dick and other family members at their homes in the past, often without pay. The excuse: "Well, you live at the business for free, why should we pay you?" He does not live there for free, but must pay rent -- another key element of the story.) Moreover, Dick strands John at the new house for all day and into the evening with no way to leave and no food in the house. John often puts in 12 hours of work with nothing but tap water. Mary works her shift at the business, then goes "home" and sits alone with nothing to eat except tap water. Yesterday, Mary was on her second day without food when my wife learned of her situation and bought her some groceries.

John's latest restitution payment is due in less than a week. If he fails to pay it, he will be arrested and carted back to prison. Dick keeps putting him off on paying him, saying "Catch me tomorrow." "Catch me in two days when I have the money." Dick and his family are, of course, wealthy (Dick just received a $10,000 check from the seller's insurance company for a damage claim, and spent most of it on golf fees and nights out drinking with his friends), but won't pay John. Meanwhile, the owner's wife says that because John has been working at Dick's house for the last three weeks, he hasn't earned any money at the business, and his rent is due. Either he pays or she kicks him out.

This is just the latest in years of economic bondage. Both John and Mary have often expressed their anger and frustration at their situation. Neither make enough money to do anything except "get by," if that's what you call it. John can't easily find another job due to his ex-con status. Dick and other family members, such as the owner's wife, have often told both of them: "You'll do what you're told and we'll pay you whatever we want. We own you." (Yes, they've really said it, time and again.)

Obviously I don't know the details of the situation, and I don't know that any laws are technically being broken. But I know economic bondage when I see it. These two people are being used as wage slaves by their employers, who have them over such an economic barrel that they in essence DO "own" them.

There has got to be some organization or group out there that can step up for John -- a prisoner's rights group, a civil liberties group, a wage-earner's organization, something. Please let me know in the comments so I can give these two that information, and maybe a little hope for a decent future. Both of them are flawed human beings, but they both are hard, willing workers and they don't deserve to be owned by a bunch of wealthy bastards who are knowingly keeping them in economic bondage.

And how many more low-wage workers are working in such conditions? It's not just the big corporate whores like Walmart that's doing it, sometimes it's the vaunted "small business owner."

5:52 PM PT: Update: I'm honored for the rescue and the rec. Sorry for the late response, I haven't been home from work long myself (though I don't get treated as badly as John and Mary).

The parole officer is a bust. John has until Friday to pay $200 or get shipped back to prison. (The $600 is a monthly total. He pays per week.) Dick is leaving town tomorrow for yet another golf tournament. If Dick dicks him again over the pay, we're going to loan him the money to pay his restitution. That's Christmas, but opening presents would be pretty damn sour knowing that the money that bought them could have kept a decent guy out of jail.

The list of resources and people to contact is amazing. And one intrepid Kossack with lots of experience working with parolees and ex-cons emailed me a TON of good info. If she's game, I will share the info she gave me (not the contact info).

Thanks, all!

Originally posted to Max's Home for Inconvenient Facts and Impertinent Opinions on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions and Community Spotlight.

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