The Political Economy of Forced Labour in Brazil: Examining labour dynamics of production networks in two cases of 'slave labour'

  • Siobhan Mcgrath

Student thesis: Phd


The problems of forced labour and degrading work persist within modern sectors of contemporary economies. This presents both a practical and a theoretical challenge, as reflected in the literature on new slavery and on unfree labour. Analysis of the production networks within which forced labour and degrading work are found, however, has yet to form a central theme within these bodies of literature. This thesis contributes to filling the above-mentioned gap in the literature by exploring the role of the labour dynamics of production networks in two cases of 'slave labour' in Brazil. The first case involves internal migrant workers in sugar cane while the second case involves cross-border migrants in garment workshops. The thesis addresses the question of whether, and how, the labour dynamics of production networks contribute to 'slave labour' and degrading work in the Brazilian sugar cane and garment sectors. The analysis is a cross-disciplinary one, rooted in development studies but also drawing on economic geography, sociology and economics. A case study method is used, relying principally on archival sources, a focus group and semi-stuctured interviews. Drawing on and developing the Global Production Network (GPN) framework, dynamics of production networks are conceived of as sets of power relations which structure the constraints and opportunities for the various actors who negotiate within them. These interlocking sets of relations include, among others: relations between workers, producers, suppliers, buyers, market intermediaries, civil society groups and the state. The labour dynamics of production networks are the subset of these dynamics involving or impacting relations between workers and employers and thereby structuring conditions of employment.Conditions of employment for migrant workers are examined in each case to show how these constitute 'slave labour.' Degrading conditions and restricted freedoms are found to exist to different degrees and along a number of dimensions. At the extreme, these conditions are labelled 'slave labour' in Brazil. It is argued that 'slave labour' in these cases is therefore a symptom of a wider problem of degrading work. The labour dynamics of production networks are analysed to reveal how producers at labour-intensive stages of production in both cases face increased levels of competition, and their strategies in response to these pressures intersect with the strategies of migrant workers and labour market intermediaries to produce outcomes of 'slave labour' and degrading work. Race, gender and migration status play a complex role in creating categories of workers vulnerable to degrading work and 'slave labour,' drawing attention to the way that production is necessarily embedded in particular socio-economic contexts. The analysis highlights the importance of accounting for and intervening in production networks within efforts to address 'slave labour' and degrading work.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorWendy Kay Olsen (Supervisor) & Stephanie Barrientos (Supervisor)


  • forced labour
  • unfree labour
  • contemporary slavery
  • Global Production Networks
  • Brazil

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