Work and Compulsion: Coerced Labour in Domestic, Service, Agricultural, Factory and Sex Work, ca. 1850-2000s

Work and Compulsion: Coerced Labour in Domestic, Service, Agricultural, Factory and Sex Work, ca. 1850-2000s

International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH)
Linz, Austria
From - Until
25.09.2014 - 28.09.2014

The International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH), Austria, announces the 50th Linz Conference, 25-28 Sept. 2014.


The conference focuses on the exploitation of human labour in the range of forced labour and debt bondage, which contrary to chattel slavery, have received little scholarly attention. In spite of the gradual abolition of slavery (understood as the legal ownership of humans) in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, other forms of coerced labour persisted in most regions of the world. Indeed, while most nations increasingly condemned the maintenance of slavery and slave trade, they tolerated labour relationships that involved violent control, economic exploitation through the appropriation of labour power, restriction of workers’ freedom of movement and fraudulent debt obligations. Hence the conference deals with historical situations of coerced labour worldwide.

The aims of this conference are five-fold:
1. To write a global and comparative history of the political-institutional and gender structures, the economics of and working conditions within coerced labour, as well as the evolution of forced labour (internal or cross-border) migration of male and female workers and the role played by intermediaries. In short, the whole praxis of coerced labour in colonized segments of the world, core countries, post-imperial states, new industrial economies and other low-income countries.
2. To problematize (the increasing) forced labour and labour mobility in colonial territories, in Africa and Asia in particular, and to relate them to developments in intra-European labour regulation and regimentation and to the expansion of North Atlantic capital across the world.
3. To deal with the twentieth-century forms of coerced labour, whether through confinement to labour camps or debt bondage of individual production and service workers to creditors (for the costs of the voyage) or to individual employers (for the duration of their stay).
4. To question whether the application of the forced-labour model to systemic employer-employee relations under constraining circumstances is justified, or whether the ILO’s differentiation between forced labour and sub-standard or exploitative working conditions can/should be maintained. These issues are related to the naming and conceptualization of “force”, “coercion” and “consent”, as well as to the utility of the notions of “human trafficking” and “modern-day slavery”.
5. To explore the experiences and aspects of human agency or resistance by forced/bonded workers, organizing initiatives and the silence or activity of non-state actors such as trade unions and NGOs.

Programme structure and themes

1. Agency of men and women under coercion.
2. A historical overview of the definitions of “slavery”, “forced labour”, “trafficking” and “modern slavery”, and their evolution within the realm of international governmental and non-governmental organisations.

Working conditions, employee-employer relationships and migration patterns (who was transported in which direction) within systems of indentured labour, debt bondage, peonage, servitude, compulsory labour and so on. Examples are the twentieth-century credit-ticket migrations from Southern China; the British (and other) empire-imposed indentured labour involving long-distance migration in the macro-regions of the Indian Ocean and the Plantation Belt from the 1830s to the 1930s; European forced-labour regimes imposed on men, women and children within particular colonies; forced labour migration from the colonies to Europe during the First World War (the so-called “colonial auxiliaries”); and forms of involuntary (child) servitude in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States.

The labour relations, working conditions and agency of workers sent to concentration camps, remote labour colonies or industrial camps under Fascism or Stalinism, in Japan during the Second World War, as prisoners or under peonage in the (southern) United States, in communist China, in Cuba, or as persecuted minorities like the Roma as well as, in the present, use of forced labour from political and other prisoners from dictatorial or authoritarian regimes by Western companies, require further study.

The phenomenon of coerced labour – often called “modern slavery” since the last decades – concerns questions of global divisions of labour, economic, gender and racial inequality. While numbers and definitions are contested by academic, UN and ILO experts, official and unofficial data range from 17 to 27 million women, men and children worldwide. This section aims to include papers with empirical information on the extent to which debt, power relationships and poverty lead to the virtual “enslavement” of people through systematic recruitment by means of intimidation or threat of violence, aggressive control by labour intermediaries such as “coyotes”, “snakes” or procurers, and/or brutal enforcement of debt collection after arrival. The experiences and resistance strategies of the workers concerned will be fundamental to better understand the degree of labour constraints and/or the consent to so-called “3D jobs” (dirty, dangerous and demeaning).

General debate on the accuracy of the current definitions used by state and non-state actors, the impact that new research can have on policies and the development or adjustment of analytical methods that can further the knowledge of coerced labour from past and present.

Preparatory group

Prof. em. Dirk Hoerder (Salzburg, Austria)
Prof. Marcel van der Linden (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)
Dr. Magaly Rodríguez García (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Wageningen University)
For the ITH: Univ.-Doz. Dr. Berthold Unfried (Institute of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna), Mag. Eva Himmelstoss

Call for Papers

Proposed papers need to address the conference topics mentioned above in section I, II or III and should include:
- An abstract (max. 300 words)
- The targeted thematic section
- A biographical note (max. 200 words)
- Full address and email-address

Sessions will be reserved for ongoing research on the level of doctoral dissertations and of postdoctoral research (depending on high-quality abstracts being submitted).
A special effort will be made to include paper presenters from all regions of the world and both senior and beginning researchers. The conference language will be English.

The organizers will not be able to reimburse costs for travel or hotel accommodation. However, we will establish a limited fund to which scholars with insufficient means of their own may write a motivated application for (partial) reimbursement of travel costs. Grants will be contingent on sufficient funding.

The conference fee includes accommodation (in shared double rooms provided by the ITH) and meals. Participants taking responsibility for their own accommodation will pay a reduced fee.

Proposals to be sent to Magaly Rodríguez García <>

Time schedule:

Deadline for submission of proposals: 1 November 2013
Notification of acceptance: 1 December 2013
Deadline for full papers: 1 August 2014

A publication of selected conference papers is planned; final manuscripts due 1 April 2015.


Contact (announcement)