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School of Geography

Vulnerable Workers, Forced Labour, Migration and Ethical Trading

A Conference at the University of Leeds, UK, Friday 14 December 2012


Conference delegates
Conference delegates

Precarious, vulnerable and even ‘forced’ labour of varying kinds is on the rise across the world. Often presented by governments and the media in the Global North as a mainly a problem for poor countries in the Global South, over the past two decades the prevalence of extreme exploitation and what some have called ‘unfree labour’ has become globalised. In the UK, the Trade Union Congress’ 2008 Commission on Vulnerable Employment–which included top business leaders–found that “two million workers are trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm”. More recently, a series of reports by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has presented evidence of ‘forced labour’ in the UK.

Central to debates over vulnerable and forced labour in the UK are two aspects of contemporary work. The first is the globalisation of production and trade: global supply chains and subcontracted agency labour enable corporations to organise production across borders, generating an enormous supply of labour in competition for jobs and a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and conditions. The second is the consequence of mass migration, particularly since the expansion of the European Union, with migrants viewed as both victims of extreme labour exploitation and, more controversially, as a major cause of vulnerable work.

This one-day conference brought together academics, campaigners, and policy makers to explore both the drivers and the broad experiences of vulnerable, forced and exploitative labour, to place the UK experience within a global context, and put questions of globalisation, migration and ethical trading centre-stage.

The conference was attended by campaigning groups, trades unions, refugee support organisations and a range of practitioners and academics concerned with the wider implications of forced labour, including ethical trading and the regulation of supply chains; and how research evidence can strengthen the work of those active in these areas.


Conference delegates
Conference delegates

Keynote speakers:

  • Alice Bloch, Professor of Sociology, City University
  • Aidan McQuade, Anti Slavery International
  • Nicola Phillips, Professor of Political Economy, University of Sheffield
  • Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security, University of Bath

Audio Recordings of Keynote and Panel Speakers from the Conference:

Introduction to the Conference - Louise Waite (University of Leeds)

Panel on Global Challenges:

Panel on Experiences and Responses:

We invite papers and other types of contributions (e.g. poetry, photography, film, art) which reflect on these questions:

Vulnerable migrant workers

  • What is the interplay between asylum and broader migration policy and vulnerable /forced labour?
  • How are different groups of non-migrants and migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, vulnerable to exploitation?

Labour markets and trade

  • How the does the organisation of production and trade in the contemporary global economy generate vulnerability and forced labour in different contexts?
  • What are the links between the politico-economic framework of neoliberal labour markets and exploitative work?

Forced labour

  • What value do definitions, international treaties and covenants on forced labour and domestic UK legislative apparatus designed to reduce/eliminate forced labour have in everyday life?
  • How do people become trapped in vulnerable and forced labour?

Organising and mobilising

  • What opportunities exist for individuals or groups to resist in order to mobilise and eventually exit from vulnerable / forced labouring?
  • What interventions might have the potential to reduce unfree/forced labour; e.g. immigration policy solutions; employer sanctions; improving precarious workers’ access to information and organising/mobilising opportunities; strategies for campaigning organisations?

The conference will be of interest to: academics working in this interdisciplinary field; people with personal experience of unfree/forced labour; policy makers; trades unionists; people working, campaigning, volunteering in these areas; and political activists. The conference will include a mixture of speakers, presentations by academics and campaigning groups and discussion.

Please send your ideas for papers or presentations (abstracts of max 250 words) by 28 September 2012 to Dr Hannah Lewis, h.j.lewis(at)

Closing date for registration is 31st October 2012.

Conference organised by Dr Stuart Hodkinson, Dr Hannah Lewis, Dr Louise Waite, University of Leeds; Prof. Pete Dwyer, University of Salford, Prof. Gary Craig, Wilberforce Institute, Hull.

The conference is organised on behalf of the ESRC-funded project: Precarious lives: asylum seekers and refugees’ experiences of forced labour (RES-062-23-2895), with additional financial support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.