Anti-trafficking laws and policies in the United States — in particular, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) — define certain types of coerced work as unlawful forced labor. Paradoxically, the TVPA’s operation also enables status coercion by casting trafficked workers as either “victims” or “criminals” once they are removed from involuntary servitude. The prevailing anti-trafficking legal regime subjects these workers, especially immigrant workers of color, to coercive conditions that persist in the criminal and immigration enforcement systems.
Playing through pain or while injured is a common practice in college athletics, as players fear losing access to the social mobility that their position makes available. Players are coerced to “just do it,” surrendering their agency to practices that border on deviant, both physically and psychologically.
While employers have long conflated status with vulnerability, workers are starting to show how status itself can also be as a source of power — one that the courts, co-workers, and the public increasingly see as justification for broad-based change.
Employers wield power over workers by virtue of control over their institutional status and not solely, or even principally, by virtue of the power to cut off wages. Yet, in attempting to distinguish “status” and “economic” coercion, we must avoid the idea that status is implicitly non-economic and the economy operates apart from the social.
Economic coercion is not the only power dynamic that shapes labor relations. In a range of cases – including prison laborers, welfare workers, college athletes, and graduate students – employers exercise power over workers by controlling their “status” and all of the rights, privileges, and opportunities that such status confers.