Unfree labour (or unfree labor in American English) is a generic or collective term for those work relations, especially in modern or early modern history, in which people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), lawful compulsion, 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, which is defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty.. Unfree labour includes all forms of slavery, and related institutions (e.g. debt slavery, serfdom, corv e and labour camps).
Payment for unfree labour
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. Convict labourers in Australia in the early 20th century.
According to the labour theory of value (as used by the classical economists), under capitalism, workers never keep all of the wealth they create, as some of it goes to the profit of capitalists. By contrast, according to the subjective theory of value (as used by neoclassical economists), the wages offered necessarily represent the marginal wealth generated by the labour, and any profit (or loss) is due to other inputs provided, such as arbitrage, time value of money, or risk. It is argued by supporters of certain theories of distributive justice that any occasion on which a worker is able to turn down employment and look elsewhere is "free labour".
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. Slavery was common in many ancient societies, including ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Israel, ancient China, classical Islamic states, as well as many societies in Africa and the Americas. Being sold into slavery was a common fate of populations 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 transplantation to the Americas, Asia or Europe where their status as slaves was usually 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 penal codes' forced labour. Somewhat later, the Edo period penal laws prescribed "non-free labour" for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Got ke reij (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Got ke reij was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696.
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.
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. In some cases, indentured workers may receive small cash payments or other benefits.
Prisoner labour at the construction of the White Sea Baltic Canal, 1931-1933. 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". In some countries and historical periods, however, prison labour has been forced upon people who have been victims of prejudice, convicted of political crimes, convicted of "victimless crimes", or people who committed theft or related offences because they lacked any other means of subsistence categories of people who typically call for compassion according to current ethical ideas. Three British colonies in Australia - New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and Western Australia - provide probably the best examples of the state use of convict labour. Australia received thousands of convict labourers in the eighteenth and ninetheenth centuries who were given sentences for crimes which ranged from what we now consider to be minor misdemeanours to such serious offences as murder, rape and incest. A considerable number of Irish convicts were sentenced to transportation for 'treason' while fighting for Irish independence from British rule. More than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australian colonies from 1788 to 1868. 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.
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 run by the Soviet Union, and the forced labour used by the military of the Empire of Japan, especially during the Pacific War (such as the Death Railway). Less well known are the roughly 4,000,000 German POW's used as "reparations labour" by the Allies for several years after the German surrender. China's Laogai ("labour reform") system is a current example.
Female forced laborers wearing "OST" (OST-Arbeiter
) badges are liberated from a camp near Lodz, January 1945
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. 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.
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 K a-in for slave labour in Manchukuo and north China. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million romusha (Japanese: "manual laborer"), were forced to work by the Japanese military. About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers 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%.
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.
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 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, at least in some cases, were a convenient way for isolated communities to operate, when official currency was scarce.
By the early 20th century, truck systems were widely seen, in industrialised 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.
Serfs are sometimes referred to as unfree labourers, although they are generally not referenced with this term in academic journals. They meet the definition in that they were bound to the land and required permission to move. They usually fared far better than most other unfree labourers in that they had the exclusive use of some land and/or means of production, legal or strongly traditional human rights, economic security, and free time to a much greater extent than slaves, indenturees, and many wage labourers. In the Middle Ages, some serfs were able to escape to a city, beyond the reach of a feudal lord.
Though most closely associated with Medieval Europe, governments throughout human history have imposed regular short stints of unpaid labor upon lower social classes. These might be annual obligations of a few weeks or something similarly regular that lasted for the laborer's entire working life . As the system developed in the Philippines and elsewhere, the laborer could pay an appropriate fee and be exempted from the obligation.
Some governments have mandatory military service. While sometimes paid, conscripts are not free to decline enlistment and 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.
Some governments, such as Greece, also have a system of civil conscription.
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.
The present situation
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. Other 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups. 
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. 
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