Usury is the action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest.

e.g. money lenders that prey on desperate people who need money but who won't be able to afford to pay back the money.

Let's say you sign a work contract because you urgently need a job, but the work contract is not in your favour. Or you agree to be contracted out at low rates but you have to pay most of your income to a middleman who found you the very low paying job because of an agreement you signed since you had no other income. That's why I like the word usury. It is in religious context wrong but not wrong in legal context.

He signed a ____ work agreement because he had been unemployed for a year and was desperate and hungry.

Edit: Clarification. The agreement doesn't break any employment laws as it is casual employment through a middleman who takes 8 times what you earn. You agreed to your rate at the start of the contract.


7 Answers 7


I'd go with exploitative:


making use of a situation or treating others unfairly in order to gain an advantage or benefit.

"an exploitative form of labor"


Drops in precisely in your template (after a swap from "a" to "an"):

He signed an exploitative work agreement because he had been unemployed for a year and was desperate and hungry.

It's similar in meaning to "extortionate", but it's more specific to your case of exploiting a situation, rather than "extortionate", which involves creating the situation through force or threats. You didn't impoverish the person in question, you just took advantage of their desperation.

  • yes. "extortion" is wrong since the person being extorted did not seek the help of the extortionist.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 2:04

I would call this a predatory work agreement although I don't think there's a specific term (excepting the legal term that 66974) posted.

I think usury is very specific to charging interest on loans so the thing you are talking about isn't related to it at all really. That's why I read this question, I was wondering what possible type of situation might exist that could be called usury but didn't involve a loan of money or goods.

  • And "Usury" is just one kind of "Predatory Lending Practice", which supports this usage. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 18:44

extortionate work agreement



the act of getting something, especially money, by force or threats:


From your original post...

...you agree to do be contracted out at low rates but you have to pay most your income to a middleman.

He signed an extortionate work agreement because he had been unemployed for a year and was desperate and hungry.

The "middlemen" often withhold passports, provide sub-standard housing, and confiscate most of the earnings of the victim. Those who try to escape this type of toxic life-style are usually threatened with violence, or (often worse) denunciation to the immigration services.

This is a form of human trafficking.

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including right here in the United States. It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations. [Emphasis mine]

Read more...-US Department of Homeland Services

The "agreement" they signed may have no legal bearing.

It is illegal anywhere. If you find yourself a victim of this kind of treatment you need to find legal counsel now. If you know of someone in this situation you need to take action, now.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 3:01

You started your question with the concept of usury, which is generally illegal; see e.g. 2010 New York Code 5-501, which has the heading Rate of interest; usury forbidden. Therefore, I will provide a legal term for a contract that is so unfair as to be illegal—or, rather, unenforceable.

The legal term that seems appropriate is unconscionable. It doesn't specifically refer to 'work usury', but to any contract where one side is trying to take advantage of another, weaker side.


Black's Law Dictionary gives the following definition:

unconscionable agreement  An agreement that no promisor with any sense, and not under a delusion, would make, and that no honest and fair promisee would accept. - Also termed uncon­scionable contract; unconscionable bargain.

For what it's worth, here is Wikipedia's take on it:

Unconscionability (sometimes known as unconscionable dealing/conduct in Australia) is a doctrine in contract law that describes terms that are so extremely unjust, or overwhelmingly one-sided in favor of the party who has the superior bargaining power, that they are contrary to good conscience. Typically, an unconscionable contract is held to be unenforceable because no reasonable or informed person would otherwise agree to it. The perpetrator of the conduct is not allowed to benefit, because the consideration offered is lacking, or is so obviously inadequate, that to enforce the contract would be unfair to the party seeking to escape the contract.

And here is a relevant segment from notes on contract law from NYU law school:

d. Unconscionability

i. Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. I – (D.C., 1964) - π purchase items on an installment plan. The contracts were designed with a cross-collateralization clause so that the amount due spread over all items purchase – keeping an open balance on everything until all items were paid for. The π claimed she did not understand the contracts, but signed them anyway. She claimed there was no (1) meeting of the minds, and (2) the contracts were against public policy. The court found for the defendant.

  1. This was a unilateral mistake on the part of the π.
  2. The contracts may have been deplorable, but were not against public policy.
  3. One who refrains from reading a contract and in conscious ignorance of its terms voluntarily assents thereto will not be relieved from a bad bargain.
  4. Duty to read, or have someone read it to them.

ii. Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. II – (US Ct. App DC Cir. 1965) – appeal from above case. The court of appeals found that the district court did have the power to declare an unconscionable contract.

  1. Unconscionability is generally recognized to include an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms that are unreasonably favorable to the other party.
  2. Whether a meaningful choice was present can only be determined by consideration of the circumstances surrounding the transaction.
  3. The test to be applied is whether the terms are “so extreme as to appear unconscionable according to the mores and business practices of the time and place”.
  4. Dissent – the π knew where she stood. J. Danahar is concerned that if this contract is declared unconscionable, it could be problematic for others who need to purchase items on installment plans.
  5. Court relied on UCC [Uniform Commercial Code] as persuasive authority.
  6. Procedural Unconscionability = how the contract was made (absence of meaningful choice, or gross inequity of bargaining power)
  7. Substantive Unconscionability = the terms of the contract (terms that are unreasonably favorable to one party).
  • It should be noted that this word is reserved for extreme cases: saying that a contract is unconscionable goes far beyond saying that the 'contract is not in your favour', which are the words the OP used to characterise what the question is about. It should also be noted that unconscionable is a technical legal term that, when used for a contract, has definite legal implications.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 17:05
  • 1
    @Greybeard The OP started their question with the concept of usury, which is generally illegal; see e.g. 2010 New York Code 5-501, which has the heading Rate of interest; usury forbidden. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 21:33
  • 1
    Yes... usury is illegal almost everywhere. I do not understand why some users are trying to justify this type of activity...and unconscionable seems to be the best legal definition. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 21:44
  • 1
    @Greybeard, saying that 'to reach that standard, the contract would have to be voidable' is confusing: voidability is not a condition of the contact being unconscionable, but its legal consequence.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 21:52
  • 1
    @Cascabel The cut-off for "illegal" might be higher than you think. For example it is perfectly legal in the UK to issue short term loans at 1500% APR (i.e. if you borrow £100 and keep rolling over the loan for a year, you would then owe the loan company £1500), and "payday loan" companies make good money doing precisely that.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 23:11

In legal contexts that would be referred to as a “leonine agreement:”


A leonine treaty or convention is one that is forced upon a weaker state by a stronger one. In some jurisdictions the adjective is applied to contracts which are manifestly unfair.


  • 15
    It should be noted that (as a fluent British English speaker with no legal training) this is not a usage I have ever heard, and if I came across it I would assume the author meant the agreement was somehow lion-like. But an interesting legal term to learn!
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 17:48
  • 1
    OED's only English citation is in a 19th book on Roman law, and that in Spanish law a "conrato leonino" may be voided for what the common law countries would call "lack of consideration". "one-sided" might work. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 18:53
  • 1
    @DavidBrowne-Microsoft - the term is also in M-W for instance: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leonine%20partnership
    – user 66974
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 18:55
  • 4
    Regardless of whether "leonine" is a useful word (and I think it is truly obscure and misleading), it does not describe the contract in the OP's post. It was not the person offering either the contract or the work who forced him into anything, it was his circumstances that forced the subject to take the only available work - work which was poorly paid.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 21:04
  • 4
    Not only is it not popular, it is also inaccurate for the reasons I give. A leonine agreement is a reference to Roman law, which is very rare in English speaking countries, which have their own legal terms. The contract must be "manifestly unfair" - and the circumstances of the OP's example are not "manifestly unfair" in fact they are rather common - and were the contracts void or voidable, they would not be.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 21:25

If you want a simple more common word, unfair fits and would convey the meaning you want.

he signed an unfair work contract...

It doesn't specifically refer to financial unfairness, as usury does, but I'd suspect you don't mean just financial unfairness either.


He signed an indebted work agreement because he had been unemployed for a year and was desperate and hungry.

Means the work agreement comes with debt... in this case to the middleman.

He signed an unorthodox work agreement because he had been unemployed for a year and was desperate and hungry.

From dictionary.com : Unorthodox

  1. (adj) not conforming to rules, traditions, or modes of conduct, as of a doctrine, religion, or philosophy; not orthodox:

Other adjectives that can be used:

  • Exploitive work agreement

    • Comes from the word "exploitation" which is the use of someone or something for personal greed
  • Extortionate work agreement

    • Comes from the word "extortion" which is the act of demanding unfair sums of money
  • Deceitful work agreement

    • From dictionary.com: Deceit
      1. (noun) the act or practice of deceiving; concealment or distortion of the truth for the purpose of misleading; duplicity; fraud; cheating:
  • 3
    Hello, Jonas. I'd say only two of these are close enough, the others being far too general (and 'indebted' unidiomatic here). And those two have already been suggested ('exploitive' being a variant of 'exploitative'). Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 11:03

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