Unfree labour and refugee workers in Middle Eastern agriculture

01 December 2021

This lecture revisits the notion of “unfree labour” through the study of refugee workers in Middle Eastern agriculture. It presents findings from the Refugee Labour under Lockdown project, drawing on interviews with 80 Syrian agricultural workers, 20 intermediaries, and 20 employers in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. The International Labour Organisation’s definition of “forced labour” does not capture Syrians’ experience of “unfreedom” – born out of the interplay of neoliberal businesses, with their need for cheap, mobile labour, and restrictive asylum policies in Middle Eastern host countries – which produce these workers. Through an anthropological lens, we see that refugees are recruited into global supply chains through kinship networks.

This lecture will be given by Ann-Christin Zuntz followed by discussion with two speakers who will help us to put Syrian refugee labour into context: Jalal Husseini (Institute français du Proche-Orient) will comment on the broader dynamics of refugees’ economic integration in the Middle East. Neil Howard (University of Bath) will contribute a comparative perspective on the role of refugee and migrant labour in increasingly globalised agricultural production.

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About the speaker: 

Dr Ann-Christin Zuntz is a lecturer in Anthropology of Development at the University of Edinburgh. She is an economic anthropologist, with a focus on the intersections of labour and forced migrations, and gender, in the Mediterranean. Since 2015, Ann has conducted fieldwork with displaced Syrians in Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia, and Bulgaria, and, remotely, in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. She does collaborative research with Syrian academics within the One Health FIELD Network. Ann is currently a visiting fellow at the Merian Centre for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in Tunis, researching displacement trajectories and social networks of Syrian refugees in North Africa.

About the discussants:

Dr Jalal Al Husseini is an associate research fellow in political sociology at the Institut français du Proche-Orient and a consultant for numerous United Nations agencies as well as national and international NGOs. Based in Amman since 1997, he has specialised in forced migration and labour market issues. Holder of a PhD obtained at the Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva), with a doctoral dissertation on the political dimensions of The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s mandate, he is the author of numerous publications, and the editor of several collective publications including Palestine in Networks (2020) and Is Jordan Ready for the Future of Work (2021 forthcoming). He has recently conducted empirical studies on the status of Syrian refugees and other refugee groups such as the “ex-Gazans” in the Jordanian labour market.

Dr Neil Howard is Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath. His research focuses on the governance of exploitative and so-called ‘unfree’ labour and in particular the various forms of it targeted for eradication by the Sustainable Development Goals. He conducts ethnographic and participatory action research with people defined as victims of trafficking, slavery, child labour and forced labour, and political anthropological research on the institutions that seek to protect them. He currently leads an ERC Starting Grant that aims to trial both action research and unconditional cash transfers as potential policy responses to indecent or exploitative work in Hyderabad, India. Neil founded and is one of the editors of the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery section at openDemocracy (www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery), which aims to put radical and grassroots commentary on ‘unfree’ or exploitative work and movement into the public domain.

Webinar recordings

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