Where is the harm in work?

How do we recognise work-based exploitation and harm? Sam Scott, author of Labour exploitation and work-based harm, argues that the ‘harm in work’ might not always be as obvious as we think and that more needs to be done to protect employees from exploitation in the workplace. 

Sam Scott

Most of us, most of the time, at least when we are not sleeping, are at work.

The question I am interested in is how much of a problem this work actually is?

In one sense, labouring is a choice. We are generally not forced to work and, when we are, the state (at least in the developed world) tends to step in to prevent slavery and related forms of coercive employment.

The law is key to defining what is and what is not morally acceptable as far as our employment is concerned; and for most of the world’s workers there is little to formally complain about.

Defining exploitation

Can one, though, be free yet also exploited? Certainly, there is exploitation of sorts involved when labour generates surplus value for capital, and when work and reward in some senses become decoupled.

“Exploitation is about the technologies, techniques, tools and tactics of worker control.”

However, it is not, I would argue, the generation of surplus value that illuminates what it means to be exploited (though a Marxist perspective might suggest otherwise).

Exploitation is about the technologies, techniques, tools and tactics of worker control, within and also beyond the workplace. It is about the constant push towards productivity and efficiency, often at the expense of the human(e).

Control, though, is not a problem per se. It simply tends to become problematic when over-used by individuals and organisations in the narrow pursuit of power, profit and status.

Finding focus

Shifting focus from forced and coerced labour to control enlarges the potential problem of work.

It points towards an exploitation continuum between extreme criminal abuse, on the one hand, and decent work on the other, and opens up this continuum for critical investigation. Implicit in this shift is the view that the criminal-legal system is ill-equipped, and even unwilling, to challenge the powers and vested interests behind the control and sometimes exploitation of labour.

“Criminalising the worst forms of exploitation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for protecting workers from harm.”

Indeed, a focus  on only criminally defined workplace practice distracts attention away from the majority of work-based harm and, to some, this may even represent a conscious ‘smoke and mirrors’ strategy by capital.

In short, criminalising the worst forms of exploitation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for protecting workers from harm.

Examining labour exploitation from the perspective of control, as well as coercion, one is compelled to look beyond isolated criminals and individualistic notions of responsibility in order to understand root causes.

“Exploitation arises from the narrow pursuit of, power, profit and status as much as it arises out of criminality.”

Challenging the excessive and oppressive control of labour is not simply about detecting isolated ‘bad-egg’ employers but also about understanding the nature of the structures governing and shaping our working lives. In particular, there are social, political, economic, legal and cultural systems that are very much orientated towards the production and reproduction of ‘good’ and ‘better’ workers (however defined).

In this respect, exploitation arises from the narrow pursuit of, power, profit and status as much as it arises out of criminality. The challenge, then, for those in positions of authority is to know where the line is between acceptable and exploitative control and between nurturing and harmful forms of work.

It is also about society asking the question ‘where is the harm in work?’, more than simply focusing on workers as the problem to be managed.


Labour exploitation and work-based harm by Sam Scott can be ordered here for £56.00.

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