Unfree labour

Unfree labour in the modern global economy, including forced labour, is the subject of rapidly increasing official and political attention.

More than ever before, a variety of stakeholders are getting involved in debates about what the limits are to ‘decent work’ and its shading into damaging, hazardous, forced, or bonded labour. Scholarly debates about the nature of unfree labour have focused in particular on what it means to talk about ‘unfreedom’ and coercion in this context, what are the old and new institutionalised forms of unfree labour, and how we should understand the relationship between current capitalism and unfree labour. Issues around gender, ethnicity, childhood, and social class are central to these debates. 

These debates are complemented by extensive bodies of research on forms of unfree labour across the world – for example, debt bondage, forms of sexual exploitation, child labour, the conditions of migrant domestic workers, and so on. Official debates about unfree labour are at the same time growing in scale and urgency, with agencies such as the International Labour Organisation and a wide array of other international, national and local bodies launching significant campaigns and legislation against forced labour and human trafficking in all their forms and manifestations. The UK government has a strong new law on Modern Slavery which implements transparency regulations governing overseas contracting by UK-based firms.

The work of the Unfree Labour research cluster is to foster a sustained debate on unfree labour in the modern global economy and, moreover, to develop a strongly interdisciplinary approach to the study of this issue. We aim to bring together and build upon perspectives from a variety of disciplines and approaches – philosophy, political theory, development studies, development economics, migration studies, gender studies, sociology, social anthropology and area studies. In this way, we can advance innovative ways of thinking about unfree labour and its place in modern capitalism.

The core questions around which our agenda coheres are the following:

  • how stakeholders define and measure unfree labour, and how these link with academic debates.  Here we draw upon philosophical, practical, and theoretical debates about how we should conceptualise notions of freedom, unfreedom, coercion and exploitation, and whether it is possible to develop measures of unfreedom and related forms of disadvantage;
  • the relationship between unfree labour and modern capitalism. Here we build on ongoing debates about whether unfree labour is characteristic of non-capitalist or pre-capitalist systems and is thus bound to be eradicated as capitalism develops and matures. Instead, perhaps unfree labour is a core part of the system of capitalism in which we live. There are ontological questions around the differentiation and structure of the system(s) of capitalism(s) and the world’s regions and cultures here. Lastly,
  • what are and should be the theoretical foundations on which unfree labour is defined, identified and measured in global policy frameworks, such as those advanced by the International Labour Organization and other bodies.


  • Wendy Olsen – Wendy’s interests centre on labour and employment relations, workers’ agency, gendered work patterns and debt bondage. Her empirical focus has been in rural areas of South India and South Asia.
  • Stephanie Barrientos – Stephanie analyses global production networks, gender and development, international labour standards, and migrant and contract labour in global production.
  • Uma Kothari – Uma is interested in researching gender and development, migration, culture and identity, industrialisation and export-processing zones, and indentured labour.
  • John O’Neill – John’s interests partly lie in philosophical and theoretical questions concerning unfree labour, moral economy, and the political economy of sustainable development.
  • Hillel Steiner - Hillel study’s the political philosophy of freedom, rights and social justice, exploitation, global justice and migration.
  • Karen Sykes – From a social anthropology perspective, Karen analyses youth and child labour, moral economy, and questions of value.
  • Nicola Mulkeen – Nicola’s account of exploitation is rooted in a fusion of Rawlsian and Left libertarian ideas. She is centrally concerned with the procedures of justice which would allow a trade to be rendered free and fair.