Slavery Is Not a Metaphor: U.S. Prison Labor and Racial Subordination Through the Lens of the ILO’s Abolition of Forced Labor Convention

Slavery is not a metaphor, yet the implications of the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade, and the literature on the Black Atlantic, are mostly ignored in the fast and furious international legal invocations of modern slavery, particularly involving various forms of labor exploitation along global value chains and global care chains. This Article calls for a recalibration, arguing that transnational labor law is deeply historicized, rooted in the persisting presence of a racial capitalism that is too easily relegated to a distant past. It addresses mass incarceration and prison labor in the United States, both as it relates to the development of international treaties on slavery and forced labor, and as it has been monitored by the International Labour Organization’s supervisory body, the Committee of Experts on the Application of Labour Standards. The ILO– U.S. dialogue on racial disparities in forced labor in prisons offers a rare instance in which the distinctly intertwined histories of slavery and the persistence of racial capitalism through prison labor are engaged. The dialogue supports the act of historical memory that operates in the work of those who understand mass incarceration and prison labor as part and parcel of the persistent afterlives of slavery through racial capitalism.

About the Author

Adelle Blackett is Professor of Law & Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law & Development, McGill University. Director, Labour Law and Development Research Laboratory. Alice Duquesnoy is a Paris-based jurist who earned a 2019 Masters in Law, Science Po Paris. Ms. Duquesnoy was an exchange student at McGill in Winter 2019, and a registered student in the Transnational Futures of International Labour Law course commemorating the ILO centenary.