The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Unfree labour

Unfree labour is a generic or collective term for forms of work, especially in modern or early modern history, in which adults and/or children are employed without wages, or for a minimal wage. This employment is imposed by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves, or to members of their families. Many of these forms of work may be covered by the term forced labour, although this tends to imply forms based on violence. Unfree labour includes all forms of slavery. (Although serfdom is technically a form of unfree labour, the term "serf" is usually only used in relation to pre-modern societies, under feudal political systems.)


Payment for unfree labour

If payment occurs, it may be in one or more of the following forms: it does not exceed subsistence or barely exceeds it; is in goods which are not desirable and/or cannot be exchanged, or; the "payment" is wholly or mostly comprised by cancellation of a debt, or a liability (which may have been incurred by a parent or other relative). Unfree labour is often more easily instituted and enforced on migrant workers, who have travelled far from their homelands and who are easily identified because of their, physical, ethnic or cultural differences to the general population.

Unfree vs. free labour

By contrast, "free labour" is a situation which a worker is able to leave at any time, if they see fit, and for which they receive substantial wages. In practice, however, many free labourers, in some historical periods and/or countries, face significant constraints on their ability to leave their jobs, and may not receive payment which is above the level of subsistence. According to the labour theory of value at least, under capitalism, workers never keep all of the wealth they create, as some of it goes to the profit of the capitalist. Because of these factors, some people, influenced by this theory, refer to the condition of the working class as "wage slavery". Some scholars prefer to see "free labour" and "unfree labour" as extreme points on a continuum, rather than being sharply distinct entities.

Forms of unfree 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. Perhaps the most prominent example of chattel slavery was the shipping of many millions of Africans to Europe and the Americas, and the work of these slaves and their descendant, until the mid-19th century.

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 such as debt slavery (see below), or the work of Aborigines on sheep and cattle stations (i.e. ranches), on or near their traditional lands in northern Australia, for which they were never or rarely paid, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

Bonded labour

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, in return for accommodation and sustenance, or for these essentials in addition to limited benefits such as cancellation of a debt, or transportation to a desired country.(Debt bondage or debt slavery is a well-known form of indenture; this is sometimes know as peonage in the USA. However, the word peon is used more generally in Latin American history, and may in some cases imply free labour.) In some cases, indentured workers may receive small cash payments or other benefits. Indenture is still common in developing countries and was perhaps the dominant formal and official form of labour in early modern colonial societies, during the 17th century and 18th century. However, it should be stressed that indenture is often only a formal legal category, and in practice employers sometimes find it difficult or impossible to coerce indentured workers, unless the letter of the law is reinforced by law enforcement systems, and/or by full acceptance by workers, as a traditional practice.

Labour of convicts

Prison labor

Convict or prison labour is another classic form of unfree labour. The forced labour of convicts has often been regarded with disinterest or a 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 undertaken by people who are: victims of prejudice; convicted of political crimes; convicted of "victimless crimes" and/or; people who committed theft or related offences because they lacked any other means of subsistence. The British colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868 are probably the best examples of convict labour, as described above: during that period, Australia received thousands of convict labourers, many of whom had received harsh sentences for minor misdemeanours in Britain or Ireland.

Labour camps

Another historically significant example of forced labour was that of political prisoners and other persecuted people, especially during the 20th century. The best-known example of this is the concentration camp system run by Nazi Germany in Europe during World War II. Millions of people were exploited and killed in this way, people targeted because they belonged to cultural or political minorities such as Jews, communists, socialists, union activists, homosexuals and Romanies. Also, for much of the history of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states, political opponents and enemies of these governments were also often sent to forced labour camps. These were probably inspired by the punitive labour camps of Imperial Russia, known as katorga.

Truck system

A "truck system", or company store system, refers to exploitation in a small or isolated and oppressive community, in which workers are paid in tokens, or in direct credit, which may only be used at a company store, owned by their employers, or they are paid in unexchangeable goods and/or services. (This is sometimes identified with debt bondage, although the "debt" in this case is incurred through consumption, rather than advances on wages.) Often the only alternative to this form of payment is destitution for the workers and their families. However, in some limited historical circumstances, when workers experience an unusual degree of bargaining power, truck wages may be used simply because of a poor or unreliable supply of cash, and payment may be in large quantities of tradeable and/or desirable goods.


Serfs are sometimes referred to as unfree labourers, although there are a number of reasons why they are usually excluded: in general, serfdom has usually occurred in pre-modern societies or societies undergoing a rapid modernisation or industrialisation, or it has been a relic of those societies. Also, serfs — in the strict sense — usually have the exclusive use of some land and/or means of production, legal or strongly traditional human rights, economic security, and generally free labour to a much greater extent than slaves, indenturees or wage labourers.

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