Global Supply Chains and Unfree Labour

Colonial Global Economy - Lecture 4

Lecturer: Prof Genevieve LeBaron, University of Sheffield

Feb. 12, 2021

Global supply chains today depend on and reinforce relations of unfree labour, including forced, child, and trafficked labour. These coercive labour relations are often described as a ‘new slavery’, and are understood to be driven by criminality, cultural backwardness, corruption and poverty in the contemporary economy. Yet, dominant narratives about ‘new slavery’ gloss over the historic and ongoing dynamics of colonial capitalism in predictably giving rise to unfree labour in supply chains. These dynamics include: dispossession and expropriation; colonial histories of unfree labour and how these continue to shape the lives of contemporary workers and communities; the role of wealthy states and corporations in engineering global supply chains that yield unequal wealth and value distribution and result in endemic exploitation, violence, and coercion. A deeper analysis reveals that contemporary unfree labour relations are anchored in the legacies and ongoing dynamics of colonial capitalism. In this session, we consider the significance of colonial capitalism in giving rise to unfree labour in global supply chains, and focus on an example of India’s tea industry to ground our discussion.



Questions for discussion

  • What does the ‘New Slavery’ framing of unfree labour reveal and conceal about colonial capitalism? Does it constitute whitewashing?
  • What is the role of states and corporations in engineering contemporary dynamics of unfree labour in global supply chains? How have their roles evolved throughout history?
  • Using the example of the contemporary tea supply chain, how do current dynamics of wealth accumulation, inequality, and exploitation relate to histories of colonial plunder and expropriation?
  • What does the prevalence of unfree labour in contemporary global supply chains tell us about how colonial capitalism works?