By the end of the nineteenth century, the general Western conception of work had been reduced to simply gainful employment. But this limited perspective contrasted sharply with the personal experience of most people in the world—whether in colonies, developing countries or in the industrializing world. Moreover, from a feminist perspective, reducing work and the production of value to remunerated employment has never been convincing.
Andrea Komlosy argues in this important intervention that, when we examine it closely, work changes its meanings according to different historical and regional contexts. Globalizing labour history from the thirteenth to the twenty-first centuries, she sheds light on the complex coexistence of multiple forms of labour (paid/unpaid, free/unfree, with various forms of legal regulation and social protection and so on) on the local and the world levels. Combining this global approach with a gender perspective opens our eyes to the varieties of work and labour and their combination in households and commodity chains across the planet—processes that enable capital accumulation not only by extracting surplus value from wage-labour, but also through other forms of value transfer, realized by tapping into households’ subsistence production, informal occupation and makeshift employment. As the debate about work and its supposed disappearance intensifies, Komlosy’s book provides a crucial shift in the angle of vision.
“Andrea Komlosy has written an important book on the global history of work during the past 800 years … she thinks about labour on a global scale, thus overcoming a deep Eurocentric bias in much of the labour history as it exists, and she brings feminist conversations on labour into an analysis of virtually all aspects of labour history. Her book is unique, I am not aware of any other such volume.”