Thinking the Global Rise of Forced Labor: Old, New, and Changing Forms of Labor Exploitation in Times of Crisis

By Marianne Braig, Léa Renard, Nicola Schalkowski, and Theresa Wobbe

The current hygienic and economic crisis affects work relationships and organization in various ways. The virus not only prompted us to identify “systemically relevant jobs”, but also brings to light the diverse divisions of labor (gender, ethnicity, color, migration status, disability, etc.) – including forms of forced and exploitative labor. What does the current situation reveal about contemporary forms of labor exploitation – before, during, and after the crisis?

Forced labor as a social and economic phenomenon is very old – think of the forms of slavery in Classical Antiquity – but it also took new shapes in the present and will likely do so in the future. Many authors have argued that forced labor has increased after 1990 and that this growth is closely linked to increasing mass migration on a global scale. Therefore, we can only hope that the current crisis will heighten our sensitivity in two ways: first, concerning the relation between migration, working, and living conditions; and second, concerning forms of labor that do not fit in the presumably universalistic concept of free capitalist labor. The current situation challenges a binary conception of coercion versus voluntariness and thereby reveals the many shades between these two poles.

Forced labor in its various forms is embedded in global production chains connecting North and South. Workers who – due to multiple forms of structural discrimination – belong to marginalized groups and who are already facing exploitative working conditions are now, in consequence of the crisis, more vulnerable to finding themselves in situations of forced labor. Among them are children – as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states when highlighting the risk for girls to be “burdened by increased domestic chores and caring responsibilities” (ILO 2020). Moreover, migrant workers and day laborers, many of them working in various service areas, are threatened by the lockdown and the restrictions on mobility. In Germany, the latest corona hotspots provide insight into the working and living conditions of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria in slaughterhouses.

As a result of the crisis, forms of work in the low-wage sector that have long been invisibilized come to light for a wider public. Gender patterns of migration indicate an international division of labor for social reproduction among women of different social classes (Mezzadri 2020). In Western European countries, care work for the elderly and children, as well as nursing in the medical sector, is primarily performed by women from Eastern Europe, who often work around the clock under precarious, highly dependent conditions, mediated by agencies. In Latin America, during the lockdowns and movement restrictions, migrant domestic workers who crossed national borders or migrated from rural areas to urban centers to perform informal labor in private households are either faced with losing their employment – and therefore their residence permit – or are coerced to stay with their employers without payment, working without limits (López Mourelo 2020). In Peru, the ILO and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are developing initiatives to raise awareness of the increased risk of forced labor and human trafficking, with an emphasis on trafficking for sexual exploitation, due to the pandemic (OIT Oficina Andina 2020; OIM Perú 2020). In Brazil, another focus area for the ILO with regard to the elimination of forced labor, illegal activities known to include coerced labor, such as lumbering and mining, are increasing in the Amazon area due to the lack of protection by authorities during the COVID-19 crisis (Kaspar 2020). Indigenous people, who historically have been and still are at an increased risk of forced labor, are now additionally vulnerable to the virus for lack of access to health care.

As we can see, the large population of informal workers in Latin America and around the world is now often faced with the “choice” between starvation and contagion. The lines between different forms of work relations become blurred, and transitions from formal employment to informal work and to forms of forced labor seem to be fluid. As researchers, we ought to pay attention to shifting terms as well as continuities in categorizations concerning work relations – e.g. forced labor – during this specific historic moment of a global crisis.

This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.


Kaspar, Thomas (2020), Corona-Krise in Brasilien. Dringender Appell an Bolsonaro: Den Indigenen droht der Völkermord – Petition gestartet, in: Frankfurter Rundschau, 5 May 2020.

ILO (2020), COVID-19 impact on child labour and forced labour: The response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme. Geneva.

López Mourelo, Elva (2020), Nota técnica – El COVID-19 y el trabajo doméstico en Argentina. Oficina de País de la OIT para la Argentina: Buenos Aires.

Mezzadri, Alessandra (2020), A Crisis like no Other: Social Reproduction and the Regeneration of Capitalist Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic, in: Developing economics 20 April 2020, (Accessed 19 May 2020).

OIM Perú (2020), La trata de personas con finalidad de explotación sexual en el contexto de eergencia por COVID-19 [Facebook-Post], (Accessed 13 May 2020).

OIT Oficina Andina (2020), Riesgos del trabajo forzoso en tiempos de COVID-19. Perú, libre de Trabajo Forzoso [Facebook-Video], (Accessed 12 May 2020).

Marianne Braig (Institute for Latin America Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, member of the Board of Directors of the Forum Transregionale Studien) is a political scientist and sociologist; Léa Renard (member of the Working Futures Network & Institute for Latin America Studies, Freie Universität Berlin), Nicola Schalkowski (Institute for Latin America Studies, Freie Universität Berlin), and Theresa Wobbe (Potsdam Center for Policy and Management, Universität Potsdam) are sociologists. They are researchers in the project “Forced Labour as a Shifting Global Category: Classification, Comparison and Meanings of Work in the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1919 – 2017”, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). 

Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.

Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.

Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.

Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May 2020.

Dirk Helbing, The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future, 21 May 2020.

Laure de Verdalle, “Useful”, “Indispensable”, “Essential”: Is the Health Crisis Changing the Categories With Which We Consider Professional Activities?, 25 May 2020.

Jürgen Kocka, How Does the Corona Crisis Affect the Future of Work and Our View of It?, 28 May 2020.

Bénédicte Zimmermann, Caring About What We Hold Dear and the Final Purposes of Work, 1 June 2020.

Michel Lallement, The Crisis as Beginning of a New Relationship to the Professional World?, 8 June 2020.

David Stark, Who or What Is Being Tested in Pandemic Times?, 11 June 2020.

Bruce Kogut, Covid and Looking for the Exit, 15 June 2020.

Sasha Disko, The End of the Pandemic of Productivism?, 18 June 2020.

Felix Sieker and Anke Hassel, The Future of Shopping: Corona as a Catalyst for the Transformation of Work, 22 June 2020.

Constance Perrin-Joly, Rearticulating Globalization, Solidarities and Work in Ethiopia, 26 June 2020.

Citation: Marianne Braig, Léa Renard, Nicola Schalkowski, and Theresa Wobbe, Thinking the Global Rise of Forced Labor: Old, New, and Changing Forms of Labor Exploitation in Times of Crisis, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.06.2020,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2020, 29. Juni). Thinking the Global Rise of Forced Labor: Old, New, and Changing Forms of Labor Exploitation in Times of Crisis. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search