Project Details


Exploitative labour of the type labelled ‘modern slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’ is now widely considered a major international issue. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recently estimated that it affects as many as 40 million people (2017), with worldwide annual expenditure on research and policy topping €200 million (Ucinkova 2014). Yet scholars have consistently argued that prevailing efforts to understand and address this labour remain depoliticising, sentimental and ineffective (Sharma 2006, Anderson 2013, Kempadoo 2017, Howard 2017a, 2017b). Instead of examining the relationality or structurality of poverty, exploitation and labour, mainstream approaches treat poverty as residual, exploitation as external, and unfreedom as antithetical to the market (LeBaron and Ayers 2014, Howard and LeBaron 2017). In turn, they seek to ‘save’ those abstracted from complex patterns of causality, consent and coercion, demarcating the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable work in terms that are reductively Western, bourgeois and privileged (Haynes 2014, O’Connell Davidson 2015, 2016, Page 2016).

WorkFREE seeks to destabilise this status quo and in doing so to push the boundaries of theory and practice. It will do so in three ways. First, by reversing the standpoint from which the analysis of unfreedom is conducted, documenting the perspective of the ‘unfree’ themselves, asking them how they define their lifeworlds, their labour, its joys, hardships, (in)dignities and (in)justices, and putting this into conversation with prevailing hegemonic notions. Second, by responding to widespread calls from such workers and from radical scholars advocating with them to ‘just give money to the poor’, in an effort to examine whether and with what consequences doing so can enhance the bargaining power of people typically constrained by circumstance to accept work that otherwise they would refuse. Third, by exploring the impact of Participatory Action Research (PAR) among communities constrained by such circumstances and the interaction between this and UCTs.

In this, WorkFREE will centre around a social experiment conducted over 18 months in Hyderabad, India, with a community normally engaged in work understood to be indecent, exploitative or coercive (waste picking). This experiment will partner the community, the University of Bath, the Indian Network for Basic Income, and two social and academic partners in Hyderabad. Over 18 months, the participant community members will receive unconditional cash transfers and PRA support for community-led action. The research team will conduct ethnographic work, action research, surveys and purposive qualitative sub-samples over two and a half years with them.

The project aims to innovate in a number of respects. First, although scholars have documented the differences between the way that so-called unfree workers see their work and the way that political institutions and mainstream analysts depict it (e.g. Andrijasevic 2010, Bourdillon et al. 2012, Okyere 2017), few have yet sought to generate grounded theory with these workers around the key concepts structuring analysis and labelling of their circumstances. Second, even fewer have sought to put such grounded theory into conversation with dominant institutional conceptualisations (encapsulated in the political approach of the ILO) in an effort to generate new ones. Third, despite the wealth of research that exists on cash tranfers and on the manifold forms of unfreedom captured in terms like ‘modern slavery’, nothing has yet attempted to bring the two together. Neither within academia nor within the more research-minded institutions has any project anywhere been designed explicitly to examine what happens to indecent, coercive or exploitative work under the counterfactual conditions of workers possessing a sufficient material base to refuse or resist it, nor with the assistance of PAR.

Four central research objectives (ROs) guide WorkFREE. These are: 1) to measure and explain what happens to (unfree) labour under conditions of UCTs and PAR, assessing what they can contribute to the fight for decent work; 2) to advance conceptual clarity around key concepts related to work, including freedom, slavery, consent, coercion, vulnerability, exploitation, emancipation and (in)decent work, and in the process to advance social theory; 3) to explore whether, as an alternative to conventional liberal theorising, the highly promising recent theorisation of ‘freedom as the power to say no’ stands up to scrutiny (Widerquist 2013); and 4) to draw out the implications for social protection and basic income.

Given the increasing political focus on sensationalist concepts such as ‘modern slavery’ and on basic income as a social protection policy for the 21st Century, the project’s impacts and outputs are intended to be as political as they are scholarly.
Effective start/end date1/01/2031/12/24


  • European Research Council