Forced labour

Forced labour, or unfree labour, is any work relation, especially in modern or early modern history, in which people are employed against their will with the threat of destitution, detention, violence including death, or other forms of extreme hardship to either themselves or members of their families.[note 1]

Clergy on forced labour, by Ivan Vladimirov (Soviet Russia, 1919)
Unfree labour workers from Plovdiv during WW2

Unfree labour includes all forms of slavery, penal labour and the corresponding institutions, such as debt slavery, serfdom, corvée and labour camps.


Many forms of unfree labour are also covered by the term forced labour, which is defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty.[1]

However, under the ILO Forced Labour Convention of 1930, the term forced or compulsory labour does not include:[2]

Note that the ILO (2009)[1] definition of forced labour includes extracting benefits from labour that was performed under menace of bad consequences like running out of money and food. Claiming the 'right to verbally force someone to labour' in right-libertarianism is logically equivalent to violating the sovereignty of the individual, meaning imposing a positive obligation on someone without consent (contract). For example, by natural law consensus the state is considered to have obtained the right to impose and enforce arbitrary commands on its subjugates if made into law, called the sovereignty of the state. This is demonstrated by the Dutch constitution (article 91) stating that the Dutch state is not bound by international treaty (with respect to its citizens) and could theoretically revoke human rights treaties. Note that the Milgram Experiment and Stanford prison experiment indicate that the right to impose and enforce arbitrary commands on people generally leads to tyranny.

Payment for unfree labour

Convict labourers in Australia in the early 19th century

If payment occurs, it may be in one or more of the following forms:

  • The payment does not exceed subsistence or barely exceeds it;
  • The payment is in goods which are not desirable and/or cannot be exchanged or are difficult to exchange; or
  • The payment wholly or mostly consists of cancellation of a debt or liability that was itself coerced, or belongs to someone else.

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, linguistic, or cultural differences from the general population, since they are unable or unlikely to report their conditions to the authorities.[3]

Industrial involvement

Trenching with hand tools and scant protective gear in rail construction, early 20th century

In many contexts, the use of unfree labour is prohibited under the law and is mainly associated with the underground economy. In other contexts, established industries have embraced the use of unfree labour as a socially accepted practice in that time and place. Use of compelled labour is especially common when the labour involved can not be performed without risk of death, disfigurement, disability, or diminished life expectancy; in the extreme, these detriments render the voluntary labour market uneconomic, and the industry in question is forced to either adopt compelled labour or discontinue operations altogether.

Industries which continue to employ unfree labour worldwide include agriculture, domestic work, manufacture, and hospitality.[4] Mining, defence, the merchant marine and transport infrastructure, which employed questionable practices during the heyday of railway track construction (often involving the use of high explosives or constructing high wooden trestle bridges in sheer mountain canyons), and of canal excavation (sometimes in conditions of permafrost) also have historical ties.

Modern day unfree labour

Unfree labour re-emerged as an issue in the debate about rural development during the years following the end of the Second World War, when a political concern of Keynesian theory was not just economic reconstruction (mainly in Europe and Asia) but also planning (in developing "Third World" nations). A crucial aspect of the ensuing discussion concerned the extent to which different relational forms constituted obstacles to capitalist development, and why.

During the 1960s and 1970s unfree labour was regarded as incompatible with capitalist accumulation, and thus an obstacle to economic growth, an interpretation advanced by exponents of the then-dominant semi-feudal thesis. From the 1980s onwards, however, another and very different Marxist view emerged, arguing that evidence from Latin America and India suggested agribusiness enterprises, commercial farmers and rich peasants reproduced, introduced or reintroduced unfree relations.

However, recent contributions to this debate have attempted to exclude Marxism from the discussion. These contributions maintain that, because Marxist theory failed to understand the centrality of unfreedom to modern capitalism, a new explanation of this link is needed. This claim has been questioned by Tom Brass (2014), ‘Debating Capitalist Dynamics and Unfree Labour: A Missing Link?’, The Journal of Development Studies, 50:4, 570–82. He argues that many of these new characteristics are in fact no different from those identified earlier by Marxist theory and that the exclusion of the latter approach from the debate is thus unwarranted.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide; of these, 9.8 million are exploited by private agents and more than 2.4 million are trafficked. Another 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups.[5][6] From an international law perspective, countries that allow forced labour are violating international labour standards as set forth in the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (C105), one of the fundamental conventions of the ILO.[7]

According to the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL), global profits from forced trafficked labour exploited by private agents are estimated at US$44,3 billion per year. About 70% of this value (US$31.6 billion) come from trafficked victims. At least the half of this sum (more than US$15 billion) comes from industrialized countries.[8]

Freedom from forced labour by country (V-Dem Institute, 2021)


Trafficking is a term to define the recruiting, harbouring, obtaining and transportation of a person by use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjecting them to involuntary acts, such as acts related to commercial sexual exploitation (including forced prostitution) or involuntary labour.[9]

Forms of unfree labour

Illustration of Native woman panning for gold


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. Slavery was common in many ancient societies, including ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, ancient Greece, Rome, ancient China, the pre-modern Muslim world, as well as many societies in Africa and the Americas. Being sold into slavery was a common fate of populations that were conquered in wars. Perhaps the most prominent example of chattel slavery was the enslavement of many millions of black people in Africa, as well as their forced transportation to the Americas, Asia, or Europe, where their status as slaves was almost always inherited by their descendants.

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 debt slavery or debt-bondage (although not all repayment of debts through labour constitutes unfree labour). Examples are the Repartimiento system in the Spanish Empire, or the work of Indigenous Australians in northern Australia on sheep or cattle stations (ranches), from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. In the latter case, workers were rarely or never paid, and were restricted by regulations and/or police intervention to regions around their places of work.

In late 16th century Japan, "unfree labour" or slavery was officially banned; but forms of contract and indentured labour persisted alongside the period's penal codes' forced labour. Somewhat later, the Edo period's penal laws prescribed "non-free labour" for the immediate families of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes that were promulgated between 1597 and 1696.[10]

According to Kevin Bales in Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (1999), there are now an estimated 27 million slaves in the world.[11][12]


Blackbirding involves kidnapping or trickery to transport people to another country or far away from home, to work as a slave or low-paid involuntary worker. In some cases, workers were returned home after a period of time.


Serfdom bonds labourers to the land they farm, typically in a feudal society. Serfs typically have no legal right to leave, change employers, or seek paid work, though depending on economic conditions many did so anyway. Unlike chattel slaves, they typically cannot be sold separately from the land, and have rights such as the military protection of the lord.

Truck system

A truck system, in the specific sense in which the term is used by labour historians, refers to an unpopular or even exploitative form of payment associated with small, isolated and/or rural communities, in which workers or self-employed small producers are paid in either: goods, a form of payment known as truck wages, or tokens, private currency ("scrip") or direct credit, to be used at a company store, owned by their employers. A specific kind of truck system, in which credit advances are made against future work, is known in the U.S. as debt bondage.

Many scholars have suggested that employers use such systems to exploit workers and/or indebt them. This could occur, for example, if employers were able to pay workers with goods which had a market value below the level of subsistence, or by selling items to workers at inflated prices. Others argue that truck wages were a convenient way for isolated communities, such as during the early colonial settlement of North America, to operate when official currency was scarce.[13]

By the early 20th century, truck systems were widely seen, in industrialized countries, as exploitative; perhaps the most well-known example of this view was a 1947 U.S. hit song "Sixteen Tons". Many countries have Truck Act legislation that outlaws truck systems and requires payment in cash.


Though most closely associated with Medieval Europe, governments throughout human history have imposed regular short stints of unpaid labour upon lower social classes. These might be annual obligations of a few weeks or something similarly regular that lasted for the labourer's entire working life. As the system developed in the Philippines and elsewhere, the labourer could pay an appropriate fee and be exempted from the obligation.[14]


A form of forced labour in which peasants and members of lower castes were required to work for free existed in India before independence. This form of labour was known by several names, including veth, vethi, vetti-chakiri and begar .[15][16]

Penal labour

Labour camps

Female forced labourers wearing "OST" (Ost-Arbeiter) badges are liberated from a camp near Lodz, January 1945.

Another historically significant example of forced labour was that of political prisoners, people from conquered or occupied countries, members of persecuted minorities, and prisoners of war, especially during the 20th century. The best-known example of this are the concentration camp system run by Nazi Germany in Europe during World War II, the Gulag camps[17] run by the Soviet Union,[18] and the forced labour used by the military of the Empire of Japan, especially during the Pacific War (such as the Burma Railway). Roughly 4,000,000 German POWs were used as "reparations labour" by the Allies for several years after the German surrender; this was permitted under the Third Geneva Convention provided they were accorded proper treatment.[19] China's laogai ("labour reform") system and North Korea's kwalliso camps are current examples.

About 12 million forced labourers, most of whom were Poles and Soviet citizens (Ost-Arbeiter) were employed in the German war economy inside Nazi Germany.[20][21] More than 2000 German companies profited from slave labour during the Nazi era, including Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Volkswagen, Hoechst, Dresdner Bank, Krupp, Allianz, BASF, Bayer, BMW, and Degussa.[22][23] In particular, Germany's Jewish population was subject to slave labour prior to their extermination.[24]

In Asia, according to a joint study of historians featuring Zhifen Ju, Mark Peattie, Toru Kubo, and Mitsuyoshi Himeta, more than 10 million Chinese were mobilized by the Japanese army and enslaved by the Kōa-in for slave labour in Manchukuo and north China.[25] The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million romusha (Japanese: "manual labourer") were forced to work by the Japanese military. About 270,000 of these Javanese labourers were sent to other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, meaning that there was a death rate of 80%.[26]

Kerja rodi (Heerendiensten), was the term for forced labour in Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population ("New People") into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps.

Prison labour

American prisoner "chain gang" labourers, 2006. Notice the shackles on the feet of the prisoners.

Convict or prison labour is another classic form of unfree labour. The forced labour of convicts has often been regarded with lack of sympathy, because of the social stigma attached to people regarded as common criminals.

Three British colonies in Australia— New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land and Western Australia—are examples of the state use of convict labour. Australia received thousands of convict labourers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were given sentences for crimes ranging from those now considered to be minor misdemeanors to such serious offences as murder, rape and incest. A considerable number of Irish convicts were sentenced to transportation for treason while fighting against British rule in Ireland.

More than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australian colonies from 1788 to 1868.[27] Most British or Irish convicts who were sentenced to transportation, however, completed their sentences in British jails and were not transported at all.

It is estimated that in the last 50 years more than 50 million people have been sent to Chinese laogai camps.[28]

Indentured and 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, for which they are paid only with accommodation and sustenance, or these essentials in addition to limited benefits such as cancellation of a debt, or transportation to a desired country.

Permitted exceptions of unfree labour

As mentioned above, there are several exceptions of unfree or forced labour recognized by the International Labour Organization:

Civil conscription

Some countries practice forms of civil conscription for different major occupational groups or inhabitants under different denominations like civil conscription, civil mobilization, political mobilization etc. This obligatory services on the one hand has been implemented due to long-lasting labour strikes, during wartimes or economic crisis, to provide basic services like medical care, food supply or supply of the defence industry. On the other hand, this service can be obligatory to provide recurring and inevitable services to the population, like fire services, due to lack of volunteers.

Temporary civil conscription

Between December 1943 and March 1948 young men in the United Kingdom, the so-called Bevin Boys, had been conscripted for the work in coal mines.[29] In Belgium in 1964,[30] in Portugal[31] and in Greece from 2010 to 2014 due to the severe economic crisis,[32][33] a system of civil mobilization was implemented to provide public services as a national interest.

Recurring civil conscription

In Switzerland in most communities for all inhabitants, no matter if they are Swiss or not, it is mandatory to join the so-called Militia Fire Brigades, as well as the obligatory service in Swiss civil defence and protection force. Conscripts in Singapore are providing the personnel of the country's fire service as part of the national service in the Civil Defence Force. In Austria and Germany citizens have to join a compulsory fire brigade if a volunteer fire service can not be provided, due to lack of volunteers. In 2018 this regulation is executed only in a handful of communities in Germany and currently none in Austria.[34][35][36]

Conscription for military service and security forces

Beside the conscription for military services, some countries draft citizens for paramilitary or security forces, like internal troops, border guards or police forces. While sometimes paid, conscripts are not free to decline enlistment. Draft dodging or desertion are often met with severe punishment. Even in countries which prohibit other forms of unfree labour, conscription is generally justified as being necessary in the national interest and therefore is one of the five exceptions to the Forced Labour Convention, signed by the most countries in the world.[37]

Community services

Community service is a non-paying job performed by one person or a group of people for the benefit of their community or its institutions. Community service is distinct from volunteering, since it is not always performed on a voluntary basis. Although personal benefits may be realized, it may be performed for a variety of reasons including citizenship requirements, a substitution of criminal justice sanctions, requirements of a school or class, and requisites for the receipt of certain benefits.

De facto obligatory community work

During the Cold War in some communist countries like Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic or the Soviet Union the originally voluntary work on Saturday for the community called Subbotnik, Voskresnik or Akce Z became de facto obligatory for the members of a community.

Hand and hitch-up services

In some Austrian and German states it is feasible for communities to draft citizens for public services, called hand and hitch-up services. This mandatory service is still executed to maintain the infrastructure of small communities.[38][39]

International conventions

See also




  1. Andrees and Belser, "Forced labor: Coercion and exploitation in the private economy", 2009. Rienner and ILO.
  2. "Convention C029 - Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)".
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  4. Wilder, Danyella (19 December 2018). "Top 5 Industries using Forced Labor". Dressember. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
  5. "Forced labour". 15 February 2013. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  6. Trafficking for Forced Labour in Europe—Report on a study in the UK, Ireland the Czech Republic and Portugal. Archived 2012-01-13 at the Wayback Machine November, 2006.
  7. "Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)". International Labour Organization. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
  8. Forced Labour and Human trafficking: Estimating the Profits.
  9. "What Is Human Trafficking?". Department of Homeland Security. 24 May 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  10. Lewis, James Bryant. (2003). Frontier Contact Between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan, pp. 31–32.
  11. "Slavery in the Twenty-First Century". Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  12. "Millions 'forced into slavery'". BBC News. 27 May 2002. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  13. Ommer, Rosemary E. (1 January 2004), "truck system", The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780195415599.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-541559-9, retrieved 10 June 2022
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  15. Shah, Ghanshyam (2004). Social Movements in India : a Review of Literature (2nd ed.). New Delhi: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-81-321-1977-7. OCLC 1101041666.
  16. Menon, Amarnath K. (29 December 2007). "The red revolt". India Today. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  17. Gulag, Encyclopædia Britannica
  18. The Gulag Collection: Paintings of Nikolai Getman Archived 2007-10-31 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. "The original memorandum from 1944, signed by Morgenthau". 27 May 2004. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  20. "Final Compensation Pending for Former Nazi Forced Laborers". Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  21. "Forced Labor at Ford Werke AG during the Second World War". Archived from the original on 14 October 2007.
  22. American Jewish Committee (2000). "German Firms That Used Slave Or Forced Labor During the Nazi Era", webpage of Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved October 21, 2007.
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  25. Zhifen Ju, "Japan's atrocities of conscripting and abusing north China draftees after the outbreak of the Pacific war", 2002
  26. Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942–50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942–45" Access date: February 9, 2007.
  27. Convict Records Archived 2009-05-27 at the Wayback Machine,
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  30. "Belgian Doctors Answer Call‐Up". The New York Times. 13 April 1964. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  31. "CIVIL CONSCRIPTION - Eurofound".
  32. "Greek gov't to issue 86,000 'civil mobilization' orders for teachers …before the strike". Keep Talking Greece. 11 May 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  33. "Greek government proceeds with conscription of maritime workers". 4 March 2016. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  34. ume (13 May 2022). "Personalmangel: Pflicht-Feuerwehr für Friedrichstadt -". shz.
  35. NDR. "Nachrichten aus Norddeutschland".
  36. "Home :: Swissfire Feuerwehrverband".
  37. National Research Council (2004). Monitoring International Labor Standards: Techniques and Sources of Information. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. p. 137. ISBN 0-309-52974-3.
  39. "Art 12 GG - Einzelnorm".


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