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Tag: Slavery

Narratives of Unpaid Labour

MMLL Cross-Faculty Seminar Series

Co-convened by Erica Bellia (Italian) and Liesbeth François (Spanish)

in collaboration with Anna Ceschi (POLIS), Carlo Baghetti (CNRS, Aix-Marseille Université), OBERT (European Observatory of Labour Narratives), Cinematic Precarity Research Network and Cambridge Labour History Cluster

A person may be visibly controlled by another person, may be bruised or even branded, may be laboring incessantly among family members who are relaxing, may go entirely unpaid for her work or have all of her wages stolen, and still most people would not recognize her enslavement as such because for much of the last one hundred years, people around the world have assumed that slavery has been eradicated.

(Laura T. Murphy, The New Slave Narrative)

Unpaid labour is a submerged reality in most societies, at different levels (Swiebel 1999; Boris 2017). It has always existed and continues to exist in many contexts on the global scale but it is most often removed from public discourse. Over the past decades, both literary and non-literary narratives focusing on the experience of unpaid labour have emerged in different but interlinked cultural contexts to address this lacuna. Slavery, care work and reproductive tasks, but also voluntary activities and precarious jobs are very different forms of labour but they all involve, to different extents, work that is performed with little to no retribution. They become invisible mechanisms for the functioning of local and global economies. They have always been unevenly distributed among different groups in societies, according, for example, to gender, race and class, and, for this reason, they have most often been approached from the point of view of inequality rather than from a labour angle (Manning 2017). Looking at these phenomena from the perspective of labour studies – focusing particularly on the way in which structural economic conditions shape their meaning and affective realities – allows the contradiction between labour as emancipation and as exploitation to manifest itself most starkly.

In many cases, statistics or top-down historiography give us fundamental quantitative understanding of unpaid labour (see for example ILOstat reports). This is often detached from the lived experience of those who work without being remunerated. Those who practice unpaid labour first-hand are not always in the conditions to tell their stories spontaneously, directly and/or have them published (Cruz 2021). Moreover, they can do so only retrospectively, when the imposition of labour has ended. Activists, writers, artists, filmmakers, cultural practitioners, journalists, historians, sociologists, and, when possible, workers themselves have in many cases taken up the task of making lived experiences of unpaid labour resurface, narrating and mediating them in different forms – as happens, for instance, in the work of French writer Éduoard Louis, Chilean author Diamela Eltit, Mexican writer and journalist Fernanda Melchor, Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Sudanese author and activist Mende Nazer, among others, as well as in feminist practices of raising consciousness. Culture, in this sense, becomes an important medium for these phenomena to enter a sphere of recognition (Felski 2021) where they are grasped in their full implications. Narratives of unpaid labour have been moreover crucial in the construction of forms of resistance and rebellion against exploitation, as is the case for slave narratives and accounts of reproductive labour performed by women (Ernest 2014; Salazar Parreñas and Boris 2010).

This seminar series aims to foster a cross-cultural, multilingual and interdisciplinary dialogue by focusing on cultural products and testimonial materials that have emerged in different geographical contexts throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in the years, therefore, that saw the formal abolition of slavery on the global scale. Studying narratives of different forms of unpaid labour through a comparative approach means uncovering the significance of these experiences and labour relations for a variety of subjects and gaining qualitative insight into the evolution and dissemination of such practices in societies that often officially repudiate slavery but reproduce, or externalise, many of its patterns.

As part of the series, we aim to address these questions, among others: how do we talk about unpaid labour? Who tells and publishes stories of unpaid labour, how and why? What are the intended audiences for these narratives? Who facilitates the expression of these somehow untellable narratives and through which channels? Which tropes have been employed to narrate unpaid labour? What broader social and cultural imaginaries do they invoke? Which uses can be made of narratives of unpaid labour? To what extent can they be read as forms of resistance to oppression? 

The aim of this interdisciplinary series is threefold:

1) discuss the media, genres, forms of cultural and artistic expressions and tropes that have been employed to narrate unpaid labour across time and space, and the methodologies to study them

2) contribute to mapping, reconstructing and studying a corpus of narratives of unpaid labour produced across different linguistic, historical and geographical contexts and media

3) develop a network of scholars and practitioners potentially interested in designing a larger research project on narratives of unpaid labour in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Programme – Part One (ET 2024)

1) 30 April 2024, 3:30pm, Alison Richard Building, SG2, & online via Zoom

Francesco Sticchi (Oxford Brookes, Film Studies)

‘From Negative Affectivity to the Joy of Insurrection: Class Consciousness in Cinematic Experiences’

2) 14 May 2024, 3:30pm, MMLL Faculty, Raised Faculty Building, Room 336, & online via Zoom

Samita Sen (Cambridge, History)

‘Some Complexities of Studying Unpaid Work: Interdisciplinarity and Intersectionality’

3) 28 May 2024, 3:30pm, MMLL Faculty, Raised Faculty Building, Room 336, & online via Zoom

Robert S. G. Gordon (Cambridge, Italian)

‘Primo Levi and Slave Labour at Auschwitz-III’