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States and the Political Economy of Unfree Labour

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Genevieve LeBaron, Nicola Phillips

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
Issue number1
Early online date11 Jan 2018
Accepted/In press20 Dec 2017
E-pub ahead of print11 Jan 2018
Published2 Jan 2019


King's Authors


A growing body of academic and policy research seeks to understand and address the problem of contemporary unfree labour. In this article, we argue that this literature could be strengthened by a stronger conceptualization of, and more systematic attention towards, the role of national states. In particular, we argue that there is a need to move beyond simplistic conceptualisations of states as simple agents of regulation and criminal justice enforcement who respond to the problem of unfree labour, and to recognize the causal and multifaceted role that national states play in creating the conditions in which unfree labour can flourish. We propose a framework to understand and compare the ways in which national states shape the political economy of unfree labour. Focusing on the United States, we outline three arenas of governance in which national states have been particularly central to enabling the conditions for unfree labour: the regulation of labour mobility, labour market regulation, and business regulation. We conclude by reflecting on the comparative political economy research that will be required to understand the role of different states in shaping the conditions in which unfree labour thrives or is eliminated.

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