Winning Debt Justice through collective action


“People are exploited at work on salaries that are not enough to live on & exploited again by profiteering energy suppliers & price-gouging supermarkets. When people take on debt to pay for essentials, they are exploited even more by lenders.”

By Heidi Chow, Debt Justice

No-one should be forced into debt just to put food on the table or keep the lights on. Yet government policies have created an economy based on chronic falling incomes, precarious and low-paid work and a weak welfare system.

This economic model has failed us spectacularly and enabled harmful debt to be used as an acceptable solution to plug the gap in household budgets. In the words of US debt activist, Astra Taylor: “Most people are not in debt because they live beyond their means; they are in debt because they have been denied the means to live.”

Sadia is a community worker from east London and got into debt following health issues. “I felt the shame and stigma. I took out credit cards and loans, I tried everything possible to pay off the debt that was building up. After sharing my story and campaigning alongside other people that have been pushed into debt, I now know that I was put in an impossible situation, and it wasn’t my fault. Many people are now being pushed into debt, I want to tell them that they are not alone, and help is out there.”

Sadia’s situation is not unique. Debt is building up rapidly in millions of households across the UK as rising energy bills, inflation, interest rates and food prices continue to bite. Almost 13 million adults are now falling behind with bills or finding repayments a heavy burden, a jump of 66% since 2017.

Debt has been hardwired into our economic system as the acceptable way to bridge the gap between ever-increasing prices and wages that lag far behind inflation. People are exploited at work on salaries that are not enough to live on and exploited again by profiteering energy suppliers and price-gouging supermarkets. When people take on debt to pay for essentials, they are exploited even more by lenders charging high rates of interest.

We see this in our communities here in the UK, but we also see a similar dynamic when it comes to global inequality: 54 countries are now in debt crisis. Debt has been used by rich governments, institutions and corporations as a powerful weapon to control and plunder the resources of lower income countries. Countries that were exploited under colonialism are now forced to borrow to fund essential services, cope with the pandemic and rising food and fuel prices and respond to the climate emergency that they did not cause.

Debt crises in a quarter of the world’s countries are forcing governments to make unaffordable debt repayments, often to banks in rich countries, at the expense of essential public services and fighting the climate emergency. Meanwhile, loans from international institutions are conditional on the implementation of more austerity and privatisation, which has led to disastrous outcomes for ordinary people.

As countries cut essential public services such as social protection, healthcare, social care and education, women and gender minorities take on more unpaid domestic labour to fill the gaps. And as prices spiral beyond the reach of wages, people take on debt that they can’t afford. It is ordinary people who suffer, whether in the UK or in lower income countries. Harmful debt reinforces existing inequalities and redistributes from people who are struggling to people who hold wealth and power.

We can break and disrupt this dynamic by building solidarity and collective power, led by people most affected by these issues. Join the Debt Justice National Activist Gathering on Saturday 16 September in Bristol for a day of workshops, training and campaign planning. We cannot ignore the debt disaster that is unfolding here in the UK and in lower income countries. Instead, come to our national gathering to find out more, get inspired and take collective action to end unjust debt.

Featured image: Debt Justice placard. Image credit: Debt Justice

Leave a Reply