Global Labour Relations

Labour relations can be inherently uneven. Because we study all forms of labour relations as part of larger labour regimes, this cluster is devoted to projects on diverse labour relations, ranging from twenty-first-century precarious labour to sixteenth-century slavery and other forms of coerced labour, and how they impact social inequality. In their latest works, both Jan Lucassen and Marcel van der Linden explicitly refer to labour relations and social inequality. Adhering to the major division of the IISH Taxonomy of Labour Relations, Jan Lucassen sketches the worldwide development of shifts in reciprocal, tributary-redistributive, and commodified labour in the period from 10,000 BCE onwards, signalling a growing division of labour and inherent inequalities. Meanwhile, Van der Linden shows how labour relations on the transcontinental labour markets of the past two centuries have become increasingly unequal.[i]

              Households are important units that produce goods and services, often both for themselves and for the market. An important aspect of our programme is the analysis of how goods and services are produced within households, and how the division of labour and labour relations are organized. A new book project developed with the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies looks at households, including larger institutional households, as coercive labour regimes. The book focuses on the household as a unit of production, analysing the division of labour and the mechanisms of control within households.

Moving from the household to the shop floor, Rosa Kösters’s PhD research “Between solidarity and fragmentation” studies the effects of the flexibilization of labour on the shop floor in various economic sectors. A central theme in her work is the various forms of workers’ organization in response to this flexibilization. This PhD project is a follow-up to the pilot “Precaire Polder: Historische Verkenningen Vakbeweging”.[ii] The regulation of labour relations is researched in the project on the Dutch Labour Authority (Nederlandse Arbeidsinspectie). On a more macro level, The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century: A Global View, edited by Jan Breman and others, takes a worldwide perspective on the social implications of globalization, and identifies the renewed and intensified Social Question as a labour issue.[iii]

 One key concern within this cluster is the role of slavery and other forms of coercive labour relations, and their implications for social inequality. [iv] There is a high societal relevance as well as an academic urgency to improve our understanding of the global history of slavery. Moving beyond dominant models of “classic” and Atlantic histories of slavery, we question how different regimes functioned, how they were enforced and challenged, and how various regimes were connected and interacted.[v] Here, too, a global but deeply empirical research agenda for the history of slavery is crucial in bridging historiographic gaps between the study of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and Southeast Asia, colonial and local contexts, formal and informal forms of slavery.[vi] Using court and other archival records to connect micro histories to the global history of labour, we can question and reconceptualize how slavery regimes worked in practice, how categorization (and racialization) developed, how enslavement impacted people’s lives, and how people responded and resisted.[vii] In similar ways, these new research avenues are also relevant for other forms of labour coercion that were instrumental in the making of the modern world, such as widely employed systems of convict or corvée labour,[viii] and for the interactions and interrelations between different regimes of labour coercion.[ix]

The global history of slavery and the slave trade and their implications for social inequality in different parts of the world are tackled by a cluster of research projects. Matthias van Rossum’s NWO Vidi research project “Resisting Enslavement” (2023–2028) as well as his ERC project “Voices of Resistance” (2024–2028) aim to reconceptualize the history of slavery based on colonial court records and comparable source material from the Dutch, French, and Iberian empires (both discussed in the description of the Individual and Collective Action Cluster). These projects build on the projects “Resilient Diversity (NWO Vrije Competitie 2017–2022) and “Between Local Debts and Global Markets (NWO Veni, 2016–2020). While “Between Local Debts” shifted the attention to slavery in Asia, by studying debt and market systems of slavery as interconnected systems of economic production, the “Resilient Diversity” project used digitized and indexed judicial VOC and Dutch West India Company (WIC) archives to analyse how Dutch colonial institutions governed diversity in North America, the Caribbean, Western Africa, and Asia. The institutions’ resilience and their lasting impact on modern systems of governance of diversity are also explained. Both projects have contributed to a shift in the perspective on the Dutch colonial empire and slavery, and have produced a wealth of new data – based on court records – for future research on the slave trade and other topics. The indexes of colonial courts across the Dutch empire not only laid the foundation for the aforementioned projects, but also for the development of several PhD dissertations. These include the “Colonial Girl Power PhD project by Hanna te Velde (described under the Individual and Collective Action cluster) and Alexander Geelen’s PhD, which explores the impact and reach of the VOC and WIC in the eighteenth century in the Gold Coast (in present-day Ghana) and the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala, India), and how this is visible through the regulation of and interference with local practices related to forced labour and bondage. For all projects, court records reveal the depth of the impact on the individual level, through the eyes of the local people most affected by it.

 The study of labour relations, and especially that of slavery, is embedded in the study of the patterns, actors, and organization of the slave trade. Our expertise in the field led major Dutch Banks, such as ABN Amro, and insurance companies to approach the IISH to research their predecessors’ past involvement in slavery and the slave trade.[x] Eva Seuntjes’s PhD project “Slavery Insured” about the Assurantie Compagnie 1771 is another example, as is our research on the history of slavery and the slave trade of the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch State.[xi] Central questions in these projects are: who are the actors? Who profits and what do they gain? What are the consequences of the slave trade for the enslaved? The approach of these projects fits into our combination of micro histories of European commercial companies, firms, and polity actors and the consequences of their activities for the lives of the enslaved within the broader context of the development of capitalism and colonialism.

Moving beyond the Dutch colonial empire, the NWO project The Global Business of Slave Trade – Patterns, Actors and Gains in the Early Modern Dutch and Iberian Slave Trade in Asia” (Open Competition M 2023–2028), led by Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, focuses on Portuguese and Spanish slaving activities in South and East Africa, the South China Sea, and the Indonesian Archipelago, and explores the entanglements between European actors, local authorities, and local peoples. With new research methods developed by the “GLOBALISE” project, sources from Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and local Asian archives are used to thoroughly revise the understanding of the dynamics and impact of the slave trade beyond the Atlantic world. In these and other future projects, the Exploring Slave Trade in Asia database, aimed at creating an Indian Ocean and Maritime Asia Slave Trade Database, will play an important role, just like the developing research infrastructure for the digital archive of the Dutch East India Company (GLOBALISE). We will continue our work on a new history of global slavery and other forms of coerced labour in 2024, with the addition of a newly endowed Chair on the global history of forced labour relations at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, held by Matthias van Rossum.


[i] Jan Lucassen, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind (London: Yale University Press, 2022); Marcel van der Linden, World Wide Web of Work: A History in the Making (London: UCL Press, 2023)

[ii] Moira van Dijk et al., “Precaire Polder. Rapport in het kader van het onderzoeksproject Historische Verkenningen Vakbeweging” (Amsterdam: IISG and FNV, 2018)

[iii] Jan Breman et al. (eds), The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century: A Global View (Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 2019), (

[iv] Christian G De Vito, Juliane Schiel, and Matthias van Rossum, “From Bondage to Precariousness? New Perspectives on Labor and Social History”, Journal of Social History 54:2 (2020), pp. 644–662.

[v] Matthias van Rossum, “Slavery and Its Transformations: Prolegomena for a Global and Comparative Research Agenda”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 63:3 (2021), pp. 566–598. Open Access:

[vi] Kate Ekama, Lisa Hellman, and Matthias van Rossum, Slavery and Bondage in Asia, 1550–1850: Towards a Global History of Coerced Labour (Berlin/Boston ? 2022). Open Access:; Ulbe Bosma, The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor(New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[vii] Matthias van Rossum, Alexander Geelen, Bram van den Hout, and Merve Tosun, Testimonies of Enslavement: Sources on Slavery from the Indian Ocean World (London: ? 2020).

[viii] Clare Anderson, Convicts: A Global History (Cambridge ? 2022); Matthias van Rossum and Merve Tosun, “Corvée Capitalism: The Dutch East India Company, Colonial Expansion, and Labor Regimes in Early Modern Asia”, The Journal of Asian Studies 80 (2021), pp. 911–932.

[ix] This concern was also raised in the recent survey on the Dutch history of slavery, commissioned by the Dutch state: Rose Mary Allen, Esther Captain, Matthias van Rossum, and Urwin Vyent, Staat en slavernij: het Nederlandse koloniale slavernijverleden en zijn doorwerkingen (Amsterdam ? 2023).

[x] Gerhard de Kok and Pepijn Brandon, Het slavernijverleden van historische voorlopers van ABN AMRO Een onderzoek naar Hope & Co en R. Mees & Zoonen (Amsterdam: IISG, 2022)

[xi] Pepijn Brandon, Guno Jones, Nancy Jouwe, and Matthias van Rossum (eds), De Slavernij in Oost en West. Het Amsterdam onderzoek (Amsterdam: Spectrum, 2020),; Esther Captain, Matthias van Rossum, Rose Mary Allen, and Urwin Vyent (eds), Staat en Slavernij. Het Nederlandse koloniale slavernijverleden en zijn doorwerkingen (Amsterdam: Atheneum, 2023),