Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Markets, Liberty and Labour. The case of temporary migrant workers.

Rajapakse Nadeera , PHARE, University Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne

Amartya Sen traces the idea of markets as liberators to Smith, who highlighted the advantages, albeit unequal, of free trade (1776, 1952). In this vein, Sen suggests that global markets may promote both development as well as freedom (1999). This paper discusses this role of markets in enabling freedoms by examining the particular example of temporary migrant workers in global labour markets. By focusing on South Asian women who migrate to the Middle East to work as domestic helpers, engaged in temporary contracts, I interpret the concept of freedom as it emerges from the complex web of cultural, moral and gendered perspectives, covering international labour markets. After presenting the specificities of temporary migrant workers, I will review how global markets have been analysed in contemporary migration literature regarding the role they play in the “commodification” of labour. While this analysis points to the way global labour markets operate, it also reveals the importance of social perception. Breaking down the various forces that form the social perception will then enable us to confront the ensuing ideas of freedom to the spaces – the global markets – where they are enhanced or restrained. The relevance, in this case, of Sen’s view of markets as liberators appears dependent more on human relations than on market forces.


Keywords: Commodification; Labour markets; Liberty; Amartya Sen; Temporary migration

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