Introduction: Why labour relations and social inequality?

The IISH Global Labour History approach, first formulated in 1999 by Jan Lucassen and Marcel van der Linden, shifted the focus of our research agenda and that of many other labour historians.[i] We changed our perspective from a predominantly national approach towards labour history to a transnational and transcontinental comparison. We no longer focused on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of white, male factory workers but began to examine all forms of work and all types of workers, globally and over the last five hundred years.

The programme was initiated with the aim of classifying labour relations globally and tracing the main changes and continuities over time and space. To this end, the IISH adopted broad definitions of labour relations and of work. Instead of the classical definition of labour relations as industrial relations, the Institute’s new definition encompassed all those that worked, for whom they worked, why they worked, and under which rules. These rules could be implicit or explicit, written or unwritten. Together, they determined the type of work, kind and amount of remuneration, the number of working hours, the degrees of physical and psychological strain, as well as the degree of freedom and autonomy associated with the work.[ii]  We borrowed a very broad definition from Charles and Chris Tilly: “Work [on the other hand,] includes any human effort adding use value to goods and services”.[iii] Together with a large group of scholars from around the globe – united through a Global Collaboratory on the History of Labour Relations – the IISH developed a Taxonomy of all types of labour relations, varying from self-subsistence labour within the household to wage labour, and from slave labour to self-employment.

This broad view of work, working conditions, and labour relations also led to a wider understanding of labour protest: this could be a strike but also a mutiny on a slave ship. The outcome of this transition to a global labour history is global comparative studies on work, workers and labour relations in several economic sectors, in sections of commodity chains, on so-called free and unfree labour, and a global taxonomy of labour relations as well as datasets on labour relations and labour conflicts, currently available online in Open Access.

The publications of the IISH Global Labour History programme also made evident that social inequality was an important theme, though often solely in an implicit way. In 2014, Leo Lucassen proposed a more explicit link between labour and social inequality by combining the labour relations typology and datasets with other data, as a means to analyse changes in the social position of workers and to integrate labour relations in the debate on social inequality.[iv] Over the past decade, the academic and public debate on growing social and economic inequality has only increased. Increasing awareness about the consequences of capitalism – highly unequal globally – on people and planet contributed to this. At the same time, awareness grew, not least through the actions of new social movements, about the long legacy of slavery and colonialism. Consequently, the persistence of inequality based on the existential categorization of people became an key aspect of the social inequality debate. All this prompted us to feed this debate from the perspective of work and labour relations. The work carried out to date provides a solid base for this and there is clearly an academic and societal need for it.

It is now widely accepted notion that work, working conditions, and labour relations are crucial to our understanding of social inequality. According to Thomas Piketty’s latest study: “it is impossible to understand the structure of inequality today without taking into account the heavy legacy of slavery and colonialism”.[v] In his book, he also refers to serfdom, bondage, and other forms of unfree labour and their impact. But the systematic link between labour relations and social inequality is not discussed. Our research agenda is developed to do just that: to understand the links between labour relations and persistent social inequality.

[i] Jan Lucassen and Marcel van der Linden, Prolegomena for a Global Labour History (Amsterdam: IISH, 1999); Marcel van der Linden, Globalizing Labour Historiography:

The IISH Approach (Amsterdam: IISH 2002); Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays towards a Global Labor History (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

[ii] For our definition of labour relations, see: Karin Hofmeester, Jan Lucassen, Leo Lucassen, Rombert Stapel, and Richard Zijdeman, “The Global Collaboratory on the History of Labour Relations, 1500–2000: Background, Set-Up, Taxonomy, and Applications” (2015),, 5. Going back even further in time is Jan Lucassen’s magnum opus Work: A Concise History (London: Yale University Press, 2021), whose starting points is the hunter-gatherers, around 700,000 BCE.

[iii] Charles Tilly and Chris Tilly, Work under Capitalism (Boulder, CO: ? 1998), p. 22.

[iv] Leo Lucassen, “Working Together: New Directions in Global Labour History”, Journal of Global History, vol 11, no 1 (2016), 66–87,

[v] Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 249.

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