In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Labor

  • Introduction
  • General Reference Resources on Issues Affecting Workers
  • Geographies of Labor
  • Labor Geographies
  • Methodological Issues in Studying Labor
  • Worker Migration

Geography Geography of Labor
Andrew Herod
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0102


Labor is an important productive force in any economy. Typically, the term “labor” is used in one of two ways: either to refer to the practice of work (as in “the amount of labor it took to construct this building was immense”) or to refer to the people actually doing the work (as in “the number of workers it took to construct this building was immense”). In terms of the latter, there has been a distinction in how geographers have approached theorizing about workers. On the one hand, there has been a tendency to view labor as a disembodied abstract element of production, in much the same way that land or capital or energy might be considered a “production factor.” This has come to be called a “geography of labor” approach to understanding the making of economic landscapes. By way of contrast, more recently there has been a move to view labor as quite literally embodied in the form of individual workers, who have lives and beliefs and emotions that get played out in the workplace and beyond it. This latter has been termed a “labor geography” approach and seeks to tell the story of the making of economic geographies from the point of view of workers. In general, the field of labor geography has focused on a number of important issues regarding workers and spatiality: (i) worker agency; (ii) conflicts over the spatial scale at which certain activities are conducted (e.g., should collective bargaining be done at the local or the national level?); (iii) the role of the state in regulating labor and the impact of this on how the economic landscape is made; and (iv) how questions of spatial organization and embeddedness intersect with questions of class.

General Reference Resources on Issues Affecting Workers

The writing on matters of labor and work is potentially endless. Consequently, detailed in this section are a number of organizations dealing with various aspects of work, employment, and labor that could be considered as starting points for students. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the Canadian Labour Congress/Congrès du travail du Canada, and the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) are all national federations made up of various labor unions representing workers in myriad different occupations. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are both United Nations agencies. Although they are not labor unions, they nevertheless play important roles in protecting worker rights, if in different ways (the ILO tends to deal more with national labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO or the TUC, whereas the IOM deals more with migrant workers, regardless of whether or not they are union members [most of them are not]). Britain’s Department for Work & Pensions and the United States Department of Labor are both governmental organizations that are good sources of data and policy documents for those interested in workers, their lives and organizations.

  • American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.

    The leading labor federation in the United States, made up of fifty-six unions representing some 12 million US workers. The AFL-CIO’s website is a good portal to websites for its individual member unions, together with information on labor policy and other matters affecting workers.

  • Australian Council of Trade Unions.

    The ACTU is a national trade union center made up of forty-six affiliated unions. Its website is a good place to start for learning about work and employment issues in Australia.

  • Canadian Labour Congress/Congrès du travail du Canada.

    The Canadian Labour Congress claims to be the largest democratic and popular organization in Canada. It has some 3.3 million members and brings together Canada’s national and international unions, the provincial and territorial federations of labor, and 130 district labor councils.

  • Department for Work & Pensions.

    This department is the largest one in the United Kingdom’s government. Its primary responsibility is to help the government develop and implement policy relating to employment, poverty alleviation, welfare provision, and pensions. It frequently commissions external social science research designed to generate original data and/or analysis to help in this matter. Its website is a good starting point for data on employment and work matters in the United Kingdom.

  • International Labour Organization.

    Providing a forum for debate and discussion about matters of work and labor among its 183 member states, the ILO is the only tripartite United Nations agency with government, employer, and worker representatives. Its website has information on labor policy across the globe, together with various data sources.

  • International Organization for Migration.

    Established in 1951, the IOM is an important intergovernmental organization in the field of migration. It works closely with the United Nations. With offices in over 100 countries, the IOM sees its job as promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. Its website is a good place to start for information on international worker migration.

  • Trades Union Congress.

    The head federation for unions in Britain, the TUC is made up of fifty-four unions that represent some 6.5 million workers. More information about the TUC and its constituent member unions can be found on its website.

  • United States Department of Labor.

    A department of the US federal government that provides lots of information on matters affecting work and workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an organization within the department that is a good source for all sorts of statistics related to work, employment, and labor.

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