Unfree Labour? in Adult Education Quarterly

By Genevieve Ritchie
Adult Education Quarterly (AEQ)
January 2018

Almost 20 years ago Griff Foley (1999) theorized consciousness-raising as a form of informal learning. Responding to the invisibility of gender and race in Foley’s account, feminists pointed out that informal learning occurs within the social relations of exploitation, patriarchy, and racialization. Indeed, the notion of an industrial (read White male) working class has painted an incomplete picture of how and where resis- tance transpires. Although Unfree Labour does not theorize learning per se, the chap- ters illustrate the ways in which workers confront the social conditions constituting racialization, gendered labor, and super-exploitation. As Choudry and Smith note, the book engages with immigrant and migrant worker organizing for the purpose of social transformation. The penultimate chapter, for example, investigates social transforma- tion through a dialogue with activist organizations and fleshes out the tensions that arise across various struggles. Thus, Unfree Labour is firmly situated within the radi- cal tradition of adult education, which understands social struggle and dialogical learning as sites of knowledge.

Each of the chapters, authored by scholar-activists, builds from the premise that immigrant/migrant workers face conditions of “unfreedom.” The concept of unfree labor draws from the dialectical relation of freedom and necessity articulated by Marx. As Choudry and Smith explicate, the concept of unfree labor captures the way in which legal instruments compel workers to sell their labor-power. Hence, immigration status undergirds the super-exploitation of noncitizen workers. Free and unfree labor, however, should not be conceptualized as binary opposites. Rather, as Thomas’ chap- ter argues, forced, unfree, and free labor coexist. The relations constituting unfreedom, moreover, are not localized, and as such they reflect historical processes of uneven capitalist development. Chapters by Ramsaroop, and Calugay, Malhaire, and Shragge echo this point by illustrating racism within unions, and by revealing the transnational conditions that underpin labor migration.

A second concept gestured to in the Introduction and developed by Paz Ramirez and Chun’s chapter is the notion of global labor apartheid. The central claim is that immigration and labor policies create two parallel yet unequal categories of workers. Drawing on historical and contemporary accounts of worker organizing in British Columbia, they suggest that ostensibly race-neutral policies actually reproduce forms of racialized exclusion, or labor apartheid. Read against the chapter by Ladd and Singh, and Mirchandani and Poster’s (2016) analysis of transnational labor, the extent to which the notion of labor apartheid can form the basis of social transformation needs careful consideration. Ladd and Singh argue that cuts to welfare, minimum wage freezes, and restricted access to citizenship created precarious conditions for workers in general. In contradistinction to Ladd and Singh’s analysis, investigations of transnational call centers demonstrate that workers deported from the United States are recruited in their home countries because of their cultural knowledge and Westernized English (Mirchandani & Poster, 2016). The larger point to be emphasized is that the global restructuring of labor markets does not neatly map onto a racialized division labor, but rather also reflects the dynamism of transnational capital. Thus, the question that arises is whether labor apartheid is a sufficiently agile concept; can it expound the relations constituting the increasing internationalization of capital, declin- ing worker protections, and the particularities of migrant labor?

Chapters by Koo and Hanley, Polanco, and Bakan flesh out the interrelations that mutually form racialization and labor. Analyses by Koo and Hanley, and Polanco detail the ways in which particular racialized groups are cast as docile or loyal work- ers, while age or accent define undesirable workers. Interestingly, Koo and Hanley demonstrate that workers in the Live-in Caregivers Program (LCP) are less incline to organize for working conditions, and instead seek to exercise control over scheduling and personal time, thereby challenging the extra-economic coercion of the workplace. Bakan theorizes the systematic discrimination embedded in the LCP and argues that group-based inequality normalizes unfree labor markets.

The concluding chapter by Arat-Koç theorizes from the empirical examples brought forth by each of the chapters. As she argues, an analysis of unfree labor cannot remain at the margins but rather must be central to our understanding of modern-day capital- ism. Arat-Koç continues, “A focus on unfree labor promises not only a better analysis of contemporary capitalism, but also contributes critically and radically to labor, anti- racist and feminist debates and activism” (p. 180). As the chapters of Unfree Labour attest to, excavating the relations constituting unfreedom is a complex yet essential task for building solidarity and liberation.


Foley, G. (1999). Learning in social action: A contribution to understanding informal educa- tion. New York, NY: Zed.

Mirchandani, K., & Poster, W. (2016). Borders in service: Enactments of nationhood in trans- national call centres. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

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