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Forced labour as a shifting global category: classification, comparison and meanings of work in the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1919 – 2017

This project explores shifting global meanings of “forced labour” from a sociological perspective of classification and comparison. Since the ILO has shaped the discourse on this topic, it forms the empirical field of investigation. While during the 1920s “forced labour” was described by the ILO as a colonial phenomenon, today it is considered as a problem of the world labour market, and, it is placed in the context of global social inequalities. We ask which continuities and ruptures the meaning of “forced labour” undergoes in processes of classification and comparison over time.

Following global historical sociology, we aim at exploring on the basis of two qualitative case studies, first, the historicity of “forced labour” as a category in the imperial context based on historical sources, and, second, its current global classification by ILO initiatives to identify, classify, and measure this phenomenon. We assume that the category has experienced a metamorphosis from a particular extra-European toward a global problem, which is connected to historically longer controversies concerning the separation of “free” and “unfree” labour. With this project, we suggest exploring a significant and contested phenomenon within the current world of work, which up to now did not receive recognition as a sociological topic of research, neither in the sociology of work and inequality, nor in the sociology of globalization. Elaborating on the global history of labour and gender research, the project wants to contribute to a reflective perspective on a core category and an interpretive model of the social sciences, which embraces specific European experiences as a yardstick of assumed universal concepts of “free labour”.