Unfreedom in Contemporary Labour Regimes 1 (paper session)

Type: Paper
Theme: Geographies of Human Rights: The Right to Benefit from Scientific Progress
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Poster #:
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM (Eastern Standard Time)
Room: Forum Room, Omni, West
Organizers: Siobhan McGrath, Louise Waite
Chairs: Siobhan McGrath


Questions of coercion, control, and confinement are increasingly pertinent to the analysis of contemporary labour regimes. For example: some workers actively excluded from labour markets through carceral systems; others (such as warehouse and delivery workers) are subject to increasing surveillance; and still others pushed into employment (e.g., through punitive welfare regimes). In light of this, this paper session seeks to explore the diverse ways in which unfreedom structures contemporary labour regimes and labour relations. Our point of departure is that struggles over freedom and unfreedom are a regular feature of labour relations (Sarkar 2017). This is in contrast to teleological perspectives (including some Marxisms) which understand capitalism as a move away from the unfreedoms of slavery and feudalism, and also in contrast to residualist approaches that conceive of unfree labour (including trafficking and slavery) as falling outside of capitalist labour relations.

While geographers are beginning to engage with the literature on contemporary ‘slavery’ and human trafficking that has become increasingly prominent in the 21st century, the significance of unfreedom for the wider landscape of labour regimes and labour relations remains underexplored. To what extent can we understand the struggles of workers, and working classes, as struggles over un/freedom? What features of labour relations can be productively (re)interpreted in terms of un/freedom and what features remain distinct? How does unfreedom (in the forms of coercion, control or confinement) structure labour regimes and labour relations beyond cases classified as trafficking or slavery? Incorporating unfreedom as a broader lens may help us attend to labour geography in new ways by drawing substantive connections to questions of structural violence, exclusion from paid employment, processes of dispossession, restricted mobilities and varied forms of social reproduction.

In asking the above questions, we seek to advance the intellectual and political agenda set out by feminist political economic geographers (Werner et al, 2017) in examining how gendered and racialised difference is used by capital to maintain its power in relation to labour at the macro level, and how individual capitalists make use of such difference to enhance their control at particular worksites (Robinson, 1983; Lowe, 2015; Esch and Roediger, 2017; Bhattacharyya, 2018). As part of this we are keen to bring together studies that explore how certain groups of workers come to be racialized as migrants (Berger and Mohr, 1975/2010) and the extent to which this represents continuities with colonial labour regimes (Hall et. Al., 1978/ 2013, p. 339). We are equally concerned with how unfreedom is experienced, responded to, and in various ways resisted. As Dipesh Chakrabarty puts it, ‘even in the… space of the factory that capital creates, ways of being human will be acted out in manners that do not lend themselves to the reproduction of the logic of capital’ (2000, p67). Following Berger and Mohr, the session will thus explore unfreedom as produced through the interaction between workers’ subjectivity and the political economy of contemporary labour regimes.

This session is being organised by: Siobhán McGrath, Durham University and Prof. Louise Waite, University of Leeds.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Louise Waite*, University of Leeds, Trafficking, unfreedom and modern slavery in the UK 20 9:55 AM
Presenter Emily Reid-Musson*, University of Waterloo, Kendra Strauss, Associate Professor, Morgan Labour Studies Program, Simon Fraser University, Ellen MacEachen, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems, University of Waterloo, The family farm and unfree labour relations 20 10:15 AM
Presenter Nabeela Ahmed*, King's College London, Mobilities of (un)freedom – precariousness, agency and social protection access among labour migrants in urban India 20 10:35 AM
Presenter Taneesha Mohan*, n.a., Agrarian Capitalism and the ‘Regime of Labour Tying’ in Rural India: A Study of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. 20 10:55 AM
Presenter Masami Tsujita Levi*, National University of Samoa, Neoliberal Competitions and Local Advantages: The Case of a Japanese Car Parts Factory in the Small Island Developing State of Sāmoa 20 11:15 AM

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