SMNR: Inequality, Labor, and Human Rights: The Future of Work in the Age of Pandemic

Course Information

Registration Information

Meeting Times

Day Time Location
MON 4:15 - 6:15 pm ONLINE

Evaluation Method

Type Date Time Location


This course will be taught entirely online via Zoom. 

Over the past decade, concerns about the “future of work” have preoccupied scholars, policymakers, NGOS, and international organizations. Many forecast massive job displacement caused by advances in automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and digitization. As formal labor’s share of national income continues to shrink around the world, informal employment, underemployment, and non-waged work increasingly characterize the lives of many. Silicon Valley tycoons, Marxist critics, far-right populists, and even a long-shot U.S. presidential candidate have all predicted the end of work as we know it. Soaring rates of unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic confirm even the gloomiest prognoses, albeit for different reasons than anticipated.


This seminar will study these and other prognoses of the future of work as well as proposals for responding to them, in light of deeply entrenched inequality within and across countries. Drawing from a range of disciplines such as law, sociology, history, and economics as well as analytical frameworks including racial capitalism, world-system theory, and distributional analysis, we will consider how the valorization and definition of “productive labor” allocates resources in ways that maintain and reproduce historical patterns of racialized, gendered, and neocolonial domination, subordination, and accumulation. We will pay special attention to the role of law and legal advocacy, including international law, in both perpetuating and responding to unequal distribution.


We will apply our study to a range of geographical locations as well as to a variety of policies addressing labor precarity. To what extent are these policies based on nostalgia for certain figurations of work and workers (organized around the formal workplace)? How might they impede our ability to imagine other, perhaps more equitable, forms of livelihood? We will consider possibilities for thinking beyond productive value in ways that more equitably distribute wealth and resources, such as guaranteed basic income, the concept of rightful shares, and reparations.  


These issues are particularly salient in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, we will attend to ways in which the coronavirus has laid bare the unequal distributive effects of global capitalism while at the same time making what previously seemed to some as radical programs (such as basic income payments and support for gig workers) relatively acceptable, at least for the moment.

The seminar will be organized around the visits of leading scholars who will present their research to the university community in a public forum. Students will spend roughly two weeks considering work by each speaker as well as related scholarly materials.

Students are expected to participate actively in class discussions, write short critical responses to assigned reading by visiting scholars, and write a longer essay on a topic related to the themes that arise during the semester. Readings for the seminar will come from a variety of disciplines. The seminar is open not only to law students but to non-law graduate and professional students with relevant background.

Textbooks ( * denotes required )

No materials required


Log In to View Course Evaluations

Important Class Changes

Date Updated
05/05/2020 Course title updated