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Political Economy Institute

Unfree labour

The question of unfree labour in the modern global economy is of key academic significance and the subject of rapidly increasing official and political attention.

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 shape modern forms of unfree labour take, and how we should understand the relationship between modern capitalism and unfree labour. 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 many 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 Organization 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 work of this research group on unfree labour is to foster a sustained consideration of debates surrounding unfree labour in the modern global economy and, moreover, to further 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 order to 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 we define and measure unfree labour, drawing on philosophical 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, building on ongoing debates about whether unfree labour is characteristic of non-capitalist or pre-capitalist systems, which is bound to be eradicated as capitalism develops and matures, or instead is a core foundation and expression of the system of modern capitalism in which we live; and
  • 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.


This work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, and The Leverhulme Trust.


The members of the core Manchester group working on unfree labour are:

  • Dr Stephanie Barrientos (development studies – interests in global production networks, gender and development, international labour standards, migrant and contract labour in global production)
  • Dr Uma Kothari (development studies – interests in gender and development, migration, culture and identity, industrialisation and export-processing zones, indentured labour in Mauritius)
  • Prof John O’Neill (philosophy – interests in philosophical and theoretical questions concerning unfree labour, moral economy, political economy of sustainable development)
  • Prof Wendy Olsen (socio-economic research – interests in labour and employment relations, workers’ agency, gendered work patterns, debt bondage, rural south India)
  • Prof Hillel Steiner (political theory – interests in political philosophy of freedom, rights and social justice, exploitation, global justice and migration)
  • Prof Karen Sykes (social anthropology – interests in youth and child labour, moral economy, the question of value, Oceania).

For further information about the group and its work, please contact Nicola Phillips or any of the people listed above.