(Re)Conceptualising Unfree Labour: Local Labour Control Regimes and Constraints on Workers' Freedoms


  • Judy Fudge School of Labour Studies, mcMaster




Disputes over the meaning of human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery have both provoked and coincided with a reinvigorated debate in academic and policy literatures about how to conceptualise unfree labour. This article traces the contours of the debate over free and unfree labour, identifying its key stakes as the debate has developed and paying particular attention to recent interventions. It begins by identifying a problem common to both canonical liberal and Marxian approaches to the free/unfree labour distinction, which is to fetishise the labour market. It then discusses the consensus that is emerging across disciplines and in leading international organisations that labour unfreedom in contemporary capitalism is best conceptualised as a continuum rather than a binary, highlighting recent disciplinary-specific contributions. It argues that the metaphor of a continuum of labour unfreedom obscures more than it illuminates. Drawing upon the growing body of literature that advocates a multifaceted approach to labour unfreedom, this article argues that a robust concept of local labour control regime does a much better job of capturing the complex mix of consent and coercion involved in extracting value from labour power than the idea of a continuum of labour unfreedom.

 KEY WORDS: unfree labour; migration; capitalism; exploitation; labour control