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 with the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), compulsion, or other forms of extreme hardship to themselves or members of their families.
Unfree labour includes all forms of slavery, and related institutions (e.g. debt slavery, serfdom, corvée and labour camps). Many of these forms of work may be covered by the term forced labour, which is defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty.
If payment occurs, it may be in one or more of the following forms:
Unfree labour is often more easily instituted and enforced on migrant workers, who have traveled far from their homelands and who are easily identified because of their physical, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural differences from the general population, since they are unable or unlikely to report their conditions to the authorities.
According to the Marxian economics, under capitalism, workers never keep all of the wealth they create, as some of it goes to the profit of capitalists. By contrast with modern subjective theory of value (as used by neoclassical economists), the wages offered necessarily represent the marginal utility of the labour, and any profit (or loss) is also due to other inputs provided, such as capital, time value of money, or risk.
Unfree labor re-emerged as an issue in the debate about rural development during the years following the end of the 1939–45 war, when a political concern of Keynesian theory was not just economic reconstruction (mainly in Europe and Asia) but also planning (in the Third World). A crucial aspect of the ensuing discussion concerned the extent to which different relational forms constituted obstacles to capitalist development, and why.
During the 1960s and 1970s unfree labor was regarded as incompatible with capitalist accumulation, and thus an obstacle to economic growth, an interpretation advanced by exponents of the then-dominant semi-feudal thesis. From the 1980s onwards, however, another and very different Marxist view emerged, arguing that evidence from Latin America and India suggested agribusiness enterprises, commercial farmers and rich peasants reproduced, introduced or reintroduced unfree relations.
However, recent contributions to this debate have attempted to exclude Marxism from the discussion. These contributions maintain that, because Marxist theory failed to understand the centrality of unfreedom to modern capitalism, a new explanation of this link is needed. This claim has been questioned by Tom Brass (2014), ‘Debating Capitalist Dynamics and Unfree Labour: A Missing Link?’, The Journal of Development Studies, 50:4, 570–82. He argues that many of these new characteristics are in fact no different from those identified earlier by Marxist theory and that the exclusion of the latter approach from the debate is thus unwarranted.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide; of these, 9.8 million are exploited by private agents and more than 2.4 million are trafficked. Other 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups. From an international law perspective, countries that allow forced labor are violating international labour standards as set forth in the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (C105), one of the fundamental conventions of the ILO.
According to the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL), global profits from forced trafficked labour exploited by private agents are estimated at US$44,3 billion per year. About 70% of this value (US$31.6 billion) come from trafficked victims. At least the half of this sum (more than US$15 billion) comes from industrialized countries.
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 forced prostitution) or involuntary 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 Egypt, Babylon, Persia, ancient Greece, Rome, ancient Israel, ancient China, classical Arab states, 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 forced transplantation to the Americas, Asia or, in much smaller numbers, 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). Examples are the Repartimiento system in the Spanish Empire, 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.
In late 16th century Japan, "unfree labour" or slavery was officially banned; but forms of contract and indentured labour persisted alongside the period penal codes' forced labour. Somewhat later, the Edo period penal laws prescribed "non-free labour" for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696.
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.
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 ("scrip") 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 countries have Truck Act legislation that outlaws truck systems and requires payment in cash.
Though most closely associated with Medieval Europe, governments throughout human history have imposed regular short stints of unpaid labor upon lower social classes. These might be annual obligations of a few weeks or something similarly regular that lasted for the laborer's entire working life. As the system developed in the Philippines and elsewhere, the laborer could pay an appropriate fee and be exempted from the obligation.
Some countries have implemented conscription for military, paramilitary or security forces, like internal troops, border guards or even police forces. 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.
Some countries also practice forms of conscription for public works. In Portugal and, due to the severe economic crisis, in Greece, a system of civil mobilization (in Greece also called political mobilization) and civil conscription was implemented to provide public services as a national interest.
In Switzerland in general, and in Austria and Germany, as rare exceptions, citizens have to join a Compulsory Fire Service. In some German states in theory it is possible for communities to draft citizens for public services, called Hand and Tension Services.
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 Burma Railway). Roughly 4,000,000 German POWs were used as "reparations labour" by the Allies for several years after the German surrender; this was permitted under the Third Geneva Convention provided they were accorded proper treatment. China's Laogai ("labour reform") system and North Korea's Kwalliso camps are current examples.
About 12 million forced labourers, most of whom were Poles and Soviet citizens (Ost-Arbeiter), were employed in the German war economy inside Nazi Germany. More than 2000 German companies profited from slave labour during the Nazi era, including Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Volkswagen, Hoechst, Dresdner Bank, Krupp, Allianz, BASF, Bayer, BMW, and Degussa.
In Asia, according to a joint study of historians featuring Zhifen Ju, Mark Peattie, Toru Kubo, and Mitsuyoshi Himeta, more than 10 million Chinese were mobilized by the Japanese army and enslaved by the Kōa-in for slave labour in Manchukuo and north China. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million romusha (Japanese: "manual laborer") were forced to work by the Japanese military. About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers were sent to other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, meaning that there was a death rate of 80%.
The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population ("New People") into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps.
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 according to current ethical ideas.
Three British colonies in Australia—New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and Western Australia—are three examples of the state use of convict labour. Australia received thousands of convict labourers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were given sentences for crimes ranging from those now considered to be minor misdemeanors to such serious offences as murder, rape and incest. A considerable number of Irish convicts were sentenced to transportation for 'treason' while fighting for Irish independence from British rule.
More than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australian colonies from 1788 to 1868. Most British or Irish convicts who were sentenced to transportation, however, completed their sentences in British jails and were not transported at all.
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.
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