Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

About the IISH Research Programme

Leo Lucassen

Why has work been valued and compensated in very different ways over the past five centuries? Why do people’s working conditions vary so widely from slavery to well-paid wage labour? And how can people individually or collectively influence these conditions? Hoping to answer these questions, the IISH is working closely with researchers on other continents to gather and analyse data about social and economic changes all over the world since 1500. This concerns labour relations, individual life cycles, survival strategies, and collective actions, as well as time series of wages, prices, productivity, gender relations, life expectancies, and literacy. The work and labour relations perspective is essential to discover how inequality comes about and is perpetuated, within and between societies. Through this research, the Institute aims to contribute to current social discussions about social inequality, economic growth, the environment, globalization, migration, and democracy.

Social Inequality

The overwhelming interest in the book Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty in the autumn of 2014 immediately brought the topic of social inequality back on the political and social agenda. The analysis by the French economist, regardless of how people may view it, has clearly revived the broader discussion about differences between rich and poor and social exclusion. Though uncontested, Piketty’s main argument in his book that inequality of wealth has increased significantly again since the 1980s (in 2012 the wealthiest 10 percent of the Dutch population had no less than 61 percent of the total capital) is not the whole story. After all, some mechanisms and forces restrict or reverse inequality. The welfare state introduced after the Second World War in many European countries, North America, Japan, and the Pacific region is one such system and arises from concern about the substandard living working conditions (the ‘social issue’), which arose at the end of the 19th century. This has been countered by the neoliberal course that many governments chose to pursue in the 1980s, giving multinationals free reign and sharply reducing taxes on corporate income. Remarkably, little or no collective action has been forthcoming from the population affected.

The importance of political decisions, which arise in turn from collective actions by those affected, is illustrated by the vast differences within the West. In the welfare states in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Japan, social policy ensures extensive reallocation of income and capital, whereas in countries such as the United States, market forces are far more prevalent, and inequality is therefore much greater.

Reallocation is by no means unique to the ‘West.’ Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and Cuba have applied this practice as well. Here, however, their centralistic, undemocratic equalizing has seriously curtailed individual freedom, and this ‘social engineering’ claimed millions of lives. Other countries restrict the reallocation to their ‘own’ citizens, excluding millions of migrants and subjecting them to extreme exploitation, as happens in the oil states in the Middle East and in countries such as Malaysia. Finally, plenty of countries within the Western sphere of influence have in the recent past taken little notice of democracy and freedom of the press and have consciously perpetuated all kinds of inequality. Examples include Spain under Franco, the regime of the colonels in Greece, and several authoritarian regimes in Latin America.
The Costs of Global Inequality

The switch to a neoliberal course in the 1980s, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, and the introduction of a market economy in China have led social inequality within countries all over the world to increase once again. Some inequality is inevitable and beneficial for human societies. When the differences between rich and poor become excessive, however, the ‘damage to society’ may be considerable: inequality reduces trust in the government and impacts democracy and social cohesion in the process. The growing power of the very rich (especially in the United States) to set up successful lobbies and invest unlimited amounts of money to sway public opinion and manipulate voting practices may be a far greater threat to democracy. Serious social inequality moreover often leads to rising crime rates and lack of safety, as the alarmingly high murder rates in Central America, South Africa, and Brazil demonstrate.

Fig. 1: 'Murder Rate in 2012 . Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

Besides an obvious correlation with structural poverty and inequality, gun ownership is a factor in high murder rates, as is clear in the United States, where the murder rates are quintuple those in Northwest Europe.

Social inequality also impacts public health and leads human capital to be underutilized. In other words, inequality affects economic growth in the long run and reduces ’global well-being.’ Curtailing social inequality is advisable. Despite a variety of efforts to achieve this, including levelling, the opposite trend has prevailed all over the world in recent decades.

Labour Relations

Rising inequality manifests not only by differences in wealth but also in income and labour relations. Considering the world as a whole reveals that while the differences between countries have diminished over the past half century, especially thanks to the rise of rapidly growing economies in China, Brazil, and India, inequality within countries has become dramatic in some cases, for example in the textile factories in Bangladesh, in coal mines in China, or among Pakistani and Burmese construction workers in Qatar. Working conditions in those countries are at times so substandard that some refer to new (debt) slavery, a pattern that presently affects about 36 million people, especially in India, Pakistan, much of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, North Korea, Russia, and China.

Fig.  2 Debt Slavery in 2014 . Source: Rick Noack in Washington Post 18-11-2013. Data source: Walk Free Global Slavery Index.

Finally, there is still much to improve for girls and women. While gender inequality has declined considerably over the past half century, women are still ordinarily at a disadvantage and treated as second-class citizens in many parts of the world. They continue to be paid less for their work than men performing the same work, have fewer opportunities for career advancement, and work longer hours. Historically, the position of women has been closely linked to their place and function within the immediate or enlarged household. Only recently has gender-specific remuneration for work started to change, thanks to growing economic individualization.


Although the West is heaven on earth from a global perspective, inequality is rising there as well. This manifests primarily in the flexibilizing labour market, where the share of self-employed has grown significantly since the end of the previous century. Although some of them earn good incomes, many find self-employment less glamorous and are underinsured and accrue little or no pension, and often they manage only if their spouse has a permanent job. Most seem to start their own businesses as a short-term strategy. In addition, growing numbers hold two – poorly paid – jobs: they are also known as ‘working poor.’ These trends suggest increasing ‘precarization’  and ‘fissuring’ of the labour market, where terms of employment are being eroded for ever more workers, pension accrual is stagnating, and wages are falling behind, impacting the wellbeing and social opportunities of these flex workers in all kinds of ways. Historical research by the IISH reveals that in the long run collective strategies are always better and enhance subsistence security.

The widening gap between rich and poor in North America and Western Europe not only deepens social-economic divisions but also widens the cultural gap between population groups. This trend has been in progress for a while and first became noticeable in the 1990s, when it manifested inter alia in the appeal of populist (anti-immigration) parties among those with little schooling. While many of the well-educated touted the economic and cultural benefits of globalization, the rapidly changing world filled others with growing discomfort and insecurity. These two groups drifted further apart, because the well-educated and those with little schooling married increasingly within their own circle (‘homogamy’), causing social mingling to decline. This further reduced opportunities for social advancement and strengthened the cultural barrier between an upper crust that embraced globalization and a conservative, more nationalist, and in some case more xenophobic undercurrent.

The IISH Research Programme

The IISH research programme about global changes in work and labour relations over the past five centuries is the perfect context for situating the current issues briefly mentioned above in a historical and global perspective. Central questions are which mechanisms underlie the current rise in social inequality and flexibilization of the labour market and the conditions (in declining order) that enable a worthy subsistence for workers. In slightly different words, why have the balance of power at the workplace and the proceeds of work (both material and immaterial) varied so much in different parts of the world over the centuries?

We try to answer these questions by gathering and analysing data as systematically as possible about work, working conditions, and labour relations in the Collaboratory (an online interactive research setting) about global labour relations from 1500, as well as by turning to the Clio-Infra project about economic growth, health, population growth, gender, biodiversity, education, violence, and democracy. We also use the many (international) archives about social movements at the IISH premises. After all, these groups have done much to fight social inequality and strengthen the position of workers.

Based on the data presently available, several important conclusions may be reached. First, as was disclosed in the report How was life? about ‘Global Well-Being,’ which the IISH and Utrecht University  (CLIO-Infra) issued jointly with the OECD in September 2014, mankind has never before been as wealthy, as well-educated, and as healthy as now. Inequality between men and women (the ‘gender gap’) has also declined considerably. The trend since 1820 reveals, however, that this progress has been far from even, and that substantial differences exist between countries and continents. The account also makes clear that economic growth often affects the environment and biodiversity.

Individual Aspirations

The time series assembled in How was life? raises countless new questions as to the nature of and the causes underlying these changes and about how these global differences may be explained. One way to understand the determinants of social inequality is to examine the shifts in labour relations (from slavery to free wage labour) over time and to gain insight into how ordinary people may influence it. We have distinguished individual from collective strategies. Individual strategies are about how people, whether as individuals or as part of a family or household, respond to overly unequal labour relations. Such responses may range from silent protest and sabotage (‘weapons of the weak’) to starting their own business and thus ‘voting with their feet’ or basically leaving for something better. Migrations nearly always serve to find a better life, whether the migrants are slaves fleeing plantations, Indian and Chinese farm workers moving to the city, African youths coming to Southern Europe as illegal aliens in search of work, or Europeans hoping to make a new life elsewhere in the world. While some may find the working conditions at their destination every bit as bad as they were at home, this does not change the aspirations and hopes that underlie their decision to leave.

The scope of the IISH research extends beyond ‘the poor, the tired, and the hungry.’ To provide satisfactory and adequate answers to the main research questions, we need to consider the well-educated, employers, and successful businessmen as well. This matters, not only because they are often responsible for unequal labour relations, but also because they are mirror images of those less fortunate, and moreover because their individual (consider expats as well-educated migrants) and collective strategies figure within the broad spectrum of work and labour relations.
United we stand

Aside from their individual strategies, people throughout the world have tried in all kinds of ways to join forces and protect their interests. These measures range from setting up urban guilds, accepting work as a group, forming cooperatives and communes (as runaway slaves have done) to establishing trade unions and other, civil society organizations, such as Greenpeace, Amnesty, Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, as well as political parties. Such initiatives are successful to varying degrees, and the IISH research has revealed interesting patterns and mechanisms that tell us a lot about the circumstances in which collective actions (from local to transnational) may be conducive to eliminating social inequality. One important observation is that the ‘West’ does not have a monopoly on collective actions, and that even in societies that provide or provided few opportunities for public protests and resistance, people have sought creative solutions to improve their plight and are rarely merely victims. This aspect of ‘agency’ is pivotal in all IISH research, and the vast archive and library collections of the Institute contain a wealth of information that has yet to be fully explored, and of which part has been supplemented by new information.

The research perspectives described briefly above demonstrate that excessive social inequality is not inevitable, and that current and future developments are heavily dependent on the nature of economic growth and the extent to which people have and create opportunities to protect their interests individually or collectively. We are aware that the manifestations of collective actions against substandard living and working conditions in Africa and Asia – as well as in centrally-governed countries such as China – often differ considerably from those in Europe and North America and consequently do not come into view. IISH researchers therefore work closely with fellow researchers in other parts of the world.

In the years ahead the IISH research department shall, with support from several global partnerships with researchers on all continents, continue systematically gathering and analyzing data about social (life courses, labour relations, survival strategies including migration, and collective actions) and economic (wages, prices, productivity) developments in the world since 1500. From the perspective of work and labour relations, this research may contribute significantly to answering the central question as to why balances of power at the workplace and the proceeds of work may vary so greatly, depending on the time and place. Such a perspective is essential for gaining insight into the conditions that foster and perpetuate inequality. Through these efforts, the Institute hopes to contribute to current social debates about social inequality, economic growth, environments, globalization, migration, and democracy.

Links and Literature

Migration History at the IISH

Bales, Kevin, Zoe Trodd & Alex Kent Williamson, Modern Slavery: A Beginner's Guide (Oxford 2009).

Blossfeld, H.-P. and S. Buchholz. "Increasing Resource Inequality among Families in Modern Societies: The Mechanisms of Growing Educational Homogamy, Changes in the Division of Work in the Family and the Decline of the Male Breadwinner Model." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 40 (2009) 4: 603-616.

Bovens, Mark & Anchrit Wille. "The educational gap in participation and its political consequences." Acta Politica 45 (2010): 393-42.

Bovens, Mark & Anchrit Wille, Diplomademocratie. Over de spanning tussen meritocratie en democratie (Amsterdam 2011).

Domańskia, Henryk & Dariusz Przybysza. "Educational homogamy in 22 European countries." European Societies 9 (2007) 4: 495-526.

Hofmeester, Karin & Christine Moll-Murata, The Joy and Pain of Work (Cambridge 2012).

Josten, Edith, Jan Dirk Vlasblom & Cok Vrooman, Bevrijd of beklemd? Werk, inhuur, inkomen en welbevinden van zzp’ers (Den Haag 2014).

Lee, Ching Kwan, Against the Law. Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley 2007).

Linden,  Marcel van der, Workers of the World. Essays toward a Global Labor History (Leiden en Boston 2008).

Lucassen, Jan, Outlines of a History of Labour (Amsterdam 2013).

Lucassen, Leo & Jan Lucassen, Winnaars en verliezers. Een nuchtere analyse van vijfhonderd jaar immigratie (Amsterdam 2011).

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the twenty-first century (Cambridge Mass. 2014).

Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven 1985).

Silver, Beverly J., Workers’ movements and globalization since 1870 (Cambridge 2003).

Tilly, Charles, Durable inequality (Berkeley 1999).

Weil, David, The Fissured Workplace. Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It (Cambridge Mass. 2014).

Wright, Erik Olin, Working-class power capitalist-class interests, and class compromise, American Journal of Sociology 105 (2000) 4, 957-1002.

Zanden, Jan Luiten van, Joerg Baten et al., How is life? Global well-being since 1820 (OECD publishing, Clio-Infra IISH 2014).

Wednesday, 25 February, 2015