Blog: Labour and Coercion

Editorial 2: Convict Labour: Right or Duty? Coercion and Labour Regimes for Prisoners in the 21st Century

In many countries, one way for prisoners to improve their situation in prison is to get a job. Convict labour, however, is often regulated in an ambiguous way. On the one hand, even in the countries where work is considered a right, it is often restricted, for example through “progressive application” – that is, delaying it until the later phases of incarceration. Prison authorities thus claim they do not have the obligation to offer jobs to all their inmates. On the other hand, prisoners, NGOs, and trade unions all over the world have reported cases of abuse and exploitation of prisoners through work. Although labour is usually not an obligation (some countries are an exception), through various coercive measures convict status is tied, in practice, to labour and discipline.

These fundamental ambiguities make it difficult to conceptualize convict labour in the 21st century. One might ask whether convict labour today is still “unfree” or “coerced” labour as it undeniably was in the past. Yet overcoming the rigid dichotomies between free and unfree labour is one of the key points of WORCK. Contemporary convict labour is a valuable testing-ground for our network’s efforts to analyse the degree to which coercion is involved in different labour relations.

Moreover, there is significant diversity not just in the legal status of prisoners, but also the political regimes under which prisons are ruled. This raises important questions: under which circumstances prisoners’ vulnerable legal status and the “race to the bottom” on the labour market combine to increase the pressure on convicts to engage in prison work run by private companies? what type of state and which political and penal cultures are more conducive to the legitimation of forms of openly coerced labour?

Understanding labour coercion in contemporary penal institutions is not just an intellectual exercise. As prisoners are especially vulnerable to abuses regarding wages, labour conditions, access to welfare programs, and punishment, at stake is empowering convicts, their families, and external organizations to claim their rights and fight for the implementation of more protective legislation.

WORCK blog series #2 aims to provide a space for exchanging information and reflections about prisoners’ labour conditions in different countries, in order to contribute to developing networks and measures for the improvement of labour rights for those held in custody.

We invite NGOs, trade unionists, activists, media representatives, concerned citizens, and directly affected prisoners to enter into a debate with an international network of economic and social historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers of work.

We welcome various types of contributions, and in particular:

  • Reviews of press articles, commentaries, or documentaries dealing with the old and new means and mechanisms of labour coercion in prisons
  • Prisoners’ reports about labour coercion
  • Essays by social and economic historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or philosophers of work reflecting on the new modes of coercion linked to convict labour in the 21st century;
  • Initiatives launched by NGOs, citizens’ movements, or individuals to improve prisoners’ labour situation and fight against different forms of labour coercion in prisons.

Editorial notes:

  • Even though this is an English-speaking website, we also welcome blog posts written in other languages than English.
  • If you would like to add a picture to your blog entry, please make sure that it is not subject to copyright or that you have permission to use it, and send us the details about the source /the copyright holders.
  • Your contribution should be sent to fernando.mendiola@unavarra.es

Editorial 1: Covid-19 and the Workers of the World. Invitation to a Debate

The coronavirus has turned the world upside down. The neoliberal project of deregulating the movement of capital and commodities while managing human mobility has made way for a restrictive crisis management organised along nation-state lines with strict border controls. At this stage, it appears difficult to gauge whether the current crisis will result in major shifts in the global political agenda or rather into an acceleration of the existing power balances. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the measures taken by the national decision-makers will herald a new governmental regime or if they stand in continuity with the neoliberal project.

While we can’t tell today if and how social and working class movements will be able to act and intervene in this crisis, we can clearly see how the prevailing management strategies reinforce old inequalities and establish new social boundaries within and between societies:

  • boundaries between permanent residents covered by a national social security system on the one hand and the non-insured day laborers and self-employed, the migrant workers and undocumented migrants with no residence status on the other,
  • boundaries between the vulnerable high-risk group of elderly or ill people deprived of their social contacts (and personal caregivers from abroad), between the potentially infected others, reorganised in small unities of the nuclear family or the single household, and those who live in crowded conditions with no possibility for social distancing,
  • boundaries between those who are allowed to work from home, between those who are considered indispensable for the critical infrastructure or obliged to ply their work for the sake of the national GDP despite potential health risks and those who lose their jobs,
  • boundaries between those who are able to survive the crisis – be it thanks to a social security system, governmental aid funds or personal savings – and those who are left to die.

For a scientific network that is funded by the European Union to connect people and ideas around the globe through meetings and conferences and to reflect on the relation between labour and coercion in a long-term and global perspective, this is a moment to pause.

Over the last twenty years, a new history of work has fought to overcome traditional binaries and biases in labour history. The classical focus on the free wage labourer and the male breadwinner of the national welfare states in Western Europe and modern capitalism has been replaced by a very broad understanding of work, including all sorts of non-productive or non-remunerated work and all forms of self-employment or coerced labour. Starting from there, this COST Action seeks to link the stories of work and production with those of violence, expropriation and marginalisation. It addresses the persistence and transformation of coercion and bondage across gender orders, world regions and historical eras.

Many pressing issues and urgent questions come to our mind, when we follow the reporting around the globe:

  • How does the corona crisis reveal and affect the social and economic conditions of work and production as well as of violence, expropriation and marginalisation?
  • What are the intersectional dynamics of unemployment and personal dependency triggered by the coronavirus? What is the percentage of female and of older employees losing their jobs due to the corona crisis?
  • What does the emphasis on staying at home mean for the household as a work-site? What are the gendered implications of work from home set-ups for unpaid housework, childcare, and the potential of domestic violence?
  • Who are the subalterns of the current emergency measures and national relief funds?
  • What are the new dimensions of precarious work in times of covid-19? How does the crisis affect the informal sector?
  • What are the implications of the new labour regimes for the (re)conceptualisation of a history of work?

We invite trade unionists, activists, media representatives, concerned citizens and those directly affected to enter into a debate with an international network of economic and social historians, of anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers of work.

We welcome contributions of the following kinds:

  • Reviews of press articles, commentaries or documentaries dealing with the new means and mechanisms of coercion in the world of labour since the corona crisis,
  • Reports on experiences of coercion made by workers since the beginning of the corona crisis,
  • Essays by social and economic historians, anthropologists, sociologists or philosophers of work reflecting on the new modes of coercion in times of Covid-19 in a long-term and global perspective,
  • Initiatives launched by NGOs, citizens’ movements or individuals and trying to raise awareness and fight for those who fall through the cracks of a nationalistic management of a global crisis of healthcare and economy.

Editorial note: Even though this is an English-speaking website, we also welcome blog posts written in other languages than English. If you would like to add a picture to your blog entry, please make sure that you respect the copyright and send us the relevant indications of the copyright holders.

Your contribution should be sent to worck@worck.eu.

Published on 3 April 2020.

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