Banner Viadrina

Core Course 2: Dr. Norbert Cyrus

Current Practices and Discourse of Unfree Labour

Course description:

In the name of human rights, civil society, International Organizations (UN, ILO, UNODC) and most governments condemn and seek to eradicate all forms of unfree labour. Researchers, in turn, adopted terminology and research agenda of bodies like ILO and UN. However, empirical description, theoretical analysis, and political recommendations produced by this policy-related research have recently been subjected to serious criticism. Scholars from philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science and feminist theory are reconsidering the very content and pitfalls of the concept of ‘unfree’ labour. While they do not deny that unfree labour exists, they question whether the concepts in use are appropriate.

By applying a set of terms (‘slavery’, ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’) as a proxy, governments and NGOs may provide a legal basis for action, but do not encourage a more nuanced understanding of the term ‘unfree’. The recent debate challenges the Western ideal of ‘individual freedom’ as a vantage point for a shared understanding of ‘unfree labour’. It claims that the clear-cut distinction between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labour does not match social reality. The human condition is characterised by the dependence on other people and by reciprocal obligations, in short: by constraints to freedom, which blur the line separating unfree from free agency. Both past and present provide many examples of situations in which individuals chose and ‘voluntarily’ stayed in conditions of unfree labour. The course invites students to challenge current assumptions about and representations of ‘unfree’ labour.


Core Course 2 - Introduction, Practical Remarks, List of obligatory reading, Full list of reading proposals (including list of additional and facultative reading) -
pdf for download

[additional and facultative reading for download here -
only the obligatory readings are included at the page "bibliography"]


Obligatory reading

1. Un/Free Labour and Capitalism

Brass, Tom: 2011, Unfree labour as primitive accumulation? In: Capital & Class 35 (1): 23-38.

2. Freedom and Labour

Morgan, Jamie; Olsen, Wendy: 2009, Unfreedom as the Shadow of Freedom: An initial contribution to the meaning of unfree labour. Manchester papers in Political Economy 02/09, Manchester: Centre for the Study of Political Economy.

3. Labour Exploitation

Wertheimer, Alan; Zwolinski, Matt: 2013,Exploitation, in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.

4. Public understanding of root causes

Rogaly, Ben: 2008, Migrant Workers in the ILO’s Global Alliance against Forced Labour Report: a critical appraisal, in: Third World Quarterly 29 (7): 14311447.

5. Abolitionist approaches – the case of sex-trafficking

Munro, Vanessa E.: 2008, Of Rights and Rhetoric: Discourses of Degradation and Exploitation in the Context of Sex Trafficking, in: Journal of Law and Society 35 (2): 240-264.


6. State Regulation Today: Migration Management

Pecoud, Antoine; Geiger, Martin: 2011, The Politics of International Migration Management, in: Geiger, M.; Pecoud, A.: The Politics of International Migration Management, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1-19.

7. Wrap-up and Outlook

Standing, Guy: 2011, A Politics of Paradise, in: Standing, G.: The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, New York: Bloomsbury (Chapter 7: 155-183).