Coercion/Consent in Labour Robert Steinfeld



This lecture was given at the annual conference of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society on ‘Theorising Key Migration Debates’, 30th June-1st July, St Anne’s College, Oxford University. It reviews selected court cases in the USA on the issue of ‘involuntary servitude’ and the attempts in law to distinguish between coercion and consent in labor. It concludes that, “rather than view compulsion in labor relations in terms of a binary opposition divided by type of pressure, it seems more plausible to think in terms of a combined scale of pressures, legal, physical, economic, social, psychological all running along a continuum from severe to mild, rather than falling into a binary opposition. This would not only help us to understand that the various types of pressure employed in eliciting labor are commensurable, operate in surprisingly similar ways at bottom, but also to see that the real focus of inquiry should be upon the choice sets with which individuals are confronted as they make their decisions about conducting their lives, and the ways in which these choice sets may be altered by changing legal arrangements.” The framework for the argument in the lecture is set out in an appendix.


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