Unfree labour is a generic or collective term for those work relations, especially in modern or early modern history, in which people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves, or to members of their families. Many of these forms of work may be covered by the term forced labour, although this tends to imply forms based on violence. Unfree labour includes all forms of slavery. (Although serfdom is technically a form of unfree labour, the term "serf" is usually used only in relation to pre-modern societies, under feudal political systems.)
Payment for unfree labour
If payment occurs, it may be in one or more of the following forms: it does not exceed subsistence or barely exceeds it; is in goods which are not desirable and/or cannot be exchanged or are difficult to exchange; or the payment is wholly or mostly comprised by cancellation of a debt or liability that was itself coerced, or belongs to someone else. Unfree labour is often more easily instituted and enforced on migrant workers, who have travelled far from their homelands and who are easily identified because of their physical, ethnic or cultural differences to the general population, since they are unable or unlikely to report their conditions to the authorities.
According to the labour theory of value (as used by the classical economists), under capitalism, workers never keep all of the wealth they create, as some of it goes to the profit of capitalists. By contrast, according to the subjective theory of value (as used by neoclassical economists), the wages offered necessarily represent the marginal wealth generated by the labour, and any profit (or loss) is due to other inputs provided, such as arbitrage, time value of money, or risk. It is argued by supporters of certain theories of distributive justice that any occasion on which a worker is able to turn down employment and look elsewhere is "free labour".
Unfree vs. free labour
By contrast, "free labour" is a situation which a worker is able to leave at any time, if they see fit. In practice, however, many nominally free labourers, in some historical periods and/or countries, face significant constraints on their ability to leave their jobs, and may not receive payment which is above the level of subsistence. For these reasons, some scholars prefer to see "free labour" and "unfree labour" as extreme points on a continuum, rather than being sharply distinct entities. Because of this, some people refer to the condition of the working class as "wage slavery". Others may feel that such terms trivialise the experiences of real slaves.
Forms of unfree labour
The archetypal and best-known form of unfree labour is chattel slavery, in which individual workers are legally owned throughout their lives, and may be bought, sold or otherwise exchanged by owners, while never or rarely receiving any personal benefit from their labour. Slavery was common in many ancient societies, including ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Israel, ancient China, as well as many societies in Africa and the Americas. Being sold into slavery was a common fate of populations conquered in wars. Perhaps the most prominent example of chattel slavery was the enslavement of many millions of black people in Africa, as well as their enforced transplantation to the Americas, Asia or Europe where their status as slaves was usually inherited by their descendants.
The term slavery is often applied to situations which do not meet the above definitions, but which are other, closely-related forms of unfree labour, such as debt slavery or debt-bondage (although not all repayment of debts through labour constitutes unfree labour), or the work of Indigenous Australians in northern Australia on sheep or cattle stations (ranches), from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. In the latter case, workers were rarely or never paid, and were restricted by regulations and/or police intervention to regions around their places of work.
According to Kevin Bales, in Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (1999), there are now an estimated 27 Million slaves in the world.
- See also: Black Codes in the USA
A more common form in modern society is indenture, or bonded labour, under which workers sign contracts to work for a specific period of time, for which they are paid only with accommodation and sustenance, or these essentials in addition to limited benefits such as cancellation of a debt, or transportation to a desired country. (Debt bondage or debt slavery is a well-known form of indenture; this is sometimes known as peonage in the USA. However, the word peon is used more generally in Latin American history, and may in some cases imply free labour.) In some cases, indentured workers may receive small cash payments or other benefits. Indenture is still common in developing countries and was perhaps the dominant formal and official form of labour in early modern colonial societies, during the 17th century and 18th century. However, it should be stressed that indenture is often only a formal legal category, and in practice employers sometimes find it difficult or impossible to coerce indentured workers, unless the letter of the law is reinforced by law enforcement systems, threats by crime syndicates (snakeheads) that supply workers (usually illegal aliens), and/or by full acceptance by workers, as a traditional practice. There are also some traditional forms of bonded labour such as the Chukri System in India and Bangladesh that are illegal, yet nonetheless still practised widely.
Convict or prison labour is another classic form of unfree labour. The forced labour of convicts has often been regarded with lack of sympathy, because of the social stigma attached to people regarded as "common criminals". In some countries and historical periods, however, prison labour has been forced upon people who have been: victims of prejudice, convicted of political crimes, convicted of "victimless crimes", or people who committed theft or related offences because they lacked any other means of subsistence — categories of people who typically call for compassion. The British colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868 are probably the best examples of convict labour, as described above: during that period, Australia received thousands of convict labourers, many of whom had received harsh sentences for minor misdemeanours in Britain or Ireland.
- See also: The Holocaust, Japanese war crimes, Gulag, Forced labor of Germans in the Soviet Union, and Eisenhower and German POWs
Another historically significant example of forced labour was that of political prisoners, people from conquered or occupied countries, members of persecuted minorities, and prisoners of war, especially during the 20th century. The best-known example of this are the concentration camp system run by Nazi Germany in Europe during World War II, the Gulag camps run by the Soviet Union, and the forced labour used by the military of the Empire of Japan, especially during the Pacific War (such as the Death Railway). Less well known is the roughly 4,000,000 German POW's used as "reparations labor" by the Allies the for several years after the German surrender. China's Laogai ("labour reform") system is a current example.
A truck system, in the specific sense in which the term is used by labour historians, refers to an unpopular or even exploitative form of payment associated with small, isolated and/or rural communities, in which workers or self-employed small producers are paid in either: goods, a form of payment known as truck wages, or; tokens, private currency or direct credit, to be used at a company store, owned by their employers. A specific kind of truck system, in which credit advances are made against future work is known in the U.S. as debt bondage.
Many scholars have suggested that employers use such systems to exploit workers and/or indebt them. This could occur, for example, if employers were able to pay workers with goods which had a market value below the level of subsistence, or by selling items to workers at inflated prices. Others argue that truck wages, at least in some cases, were a convenient way for isolated communities to operate, when official currency was scarce.
By the early 20th century, truck systems were widely seen, in industrialised countries, as exploitative; perhaps the most well-known example of this view was a 1947 U.S. hit song "Sixteen Tons". Many governments around the world enacted legislation (often known as a Truck Act) to outlaw truck systems and require payment in cash. However, it is still common for employers to provide compensation, with the approval or requirement of the government, in non-cash benefits such as health care.
Serfs are sometimes referred to as unfree labourers, although they are generally not referenced with this term in academic journals. They meet the definition in that they were bound to the land and required permission to move. They usually fared far better than most other unfree labourers in that they had the exclusive use of some land and/or means of production, legal or strongly traditional human rights, economic security, and free time to a much greater extent than slaves, indenturees, and many wage labourers. In the Middle Ages, some serfs were able to escape to a city, beyond the reach of a feudal lord.
Some governments have mandatory military service. While sometimes paid, conscripts are not free to decline enlistment and draft dodging or desertion are often met with severe punishment. Even in countries which prohibit other forms of unfree labour, conscription is generally justified as being necessary in the national interest.
Trafficking is a term to define the recruiting, harbouring, obtaining and transportation of a person by use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjecting them to involuntary acts, such as acts related to commercial sexual exploitation (including prostitution) or involuntary labour.
The present situation
The International Labour Organization estimates that:
- 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour
- more than 2.4 million have been trafficked
- 9.8 million are exploited by private agents
- 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups
The profits from forced trafficked labour are estimated to be in excess of $30 billion dollars.
- George W. Hilton, The Truck System, including a History of the British Truck Acts, 1465-1960. Cambridge, UK: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd, 1960.
- Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848. London: Verso, 1988.
- Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race (2 vol.) New York: Verso Books.
- Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control, 1994.
- Vol. II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, 1997.
- Tom Brass, Marcel van der Linden, and Jan Lucassen, Free and Unfree Labour. Amsterdam: International Institute for Social History, 1993.
- Tom Brass, Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates, London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.
- Tom Brass and Marcel Van Der Linden (eds.), Free and Unfree Labour: The Debate Continues (International and Comparative Social History, 5). New York: Peter Lang AG, 1997.
- Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800, London: Verso, 1997.
- Kevin Bales. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. UC Berkeley Press, 1999
- Involuntary servitude
- Shanghai (verb)
- Trafficking in human beings
- Wage slavery
- White slavery
- Labour battalion
- Sexual slavery
- Bracero Program
- German Forced Labour Compensation Programme
- Slavery in the 21st century - BBC
- Sex trade's reliance on forced labour - BBC
- China's Forced Labour Camps - Laogai Research Foundationde:Zwangsarbeit