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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Jun 3, 2021

Non-Traditional Labor

Several kinds of non-traditional labor in the US leave Americans vulnerable to coercion at work. Prisoners work during their sentence at reduced or even no wages. Student athletes also work hard in employment-like conditions but do not get remunerated. Workfare workers are forced to do menial labor in order to qualify for welfare. Graduate students also work for their advisors and don’t qualify for minimum wage. Although not technically considered employment in the US, these are jobs and should be considered as such.

Status Coercion

Unfair treatment is allowed to proliferate in non-traditional workplaces because bosses hold enormous power. Prisoners are forced to work to keep their “good standing” status, and are denied the right to exercise, purchase better meals, or call loved ones. Student athletes are at the whim of their coaches and must strive to stay in their good graces to receive playing time. Workfare workers are forced to work the menial tasks set forth by their bosses or risk losing their welfare eligibility. Graduate students must stay in the good graces of the professor they work under or risk losing their work or place in the university.

Reframing Coercive Work

The first step to ending status coercion is to reframe how we think about work. We must acknowledge that graduate students and student athletes—no matter how lucky or privileged—are workers and deserve the protection other workers get. We need to acknowledge that prisoners are also laborers, and that workfare workers are performing real work. Once they are treated as workers, we must give them the tools to bargain collectively, assert their rights, and earn minimum wage.


Erin Hatton, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research focuses on work and political economy, while also extending into the fields of social inequality, labor, law and social policy.

Hatton’s new book, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment analyzes four very different--and unusual--groups of workers:  incarcerated, workfare, college athlete, and graduate student workers. Drawing on more than 120 in-depth interviews across these four groups, in this book she uncovers a new form of labor coercion and analyzes its consequences for workers in America.

Her first book, The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America, weaves together gender, race, class and work in a cultural analysis of the temporary help industry and rise of the new economy.

You can follow her on Twitter @Eehatton.