It is assumed that the rise of CSR and the private regulation of labor rights in global supply chains help to improve working conditions in supplying factories. Incidences such as factory burning in Bangladeshis garment industry (one of which killed more than 1100 people) or suicides in China’s electronic industry seem to contradict such assumptions. But also scientific research portrays mixed results on how monitoring and certification impacts working conditions inside factories. This article takes a slightly different approach by asking on how the rise of CSR influences the development of domestic labor rights organizations in the People’s Republic of China.

Trade unions and work councils count as important actors helping to realize labor rights on the ground. But in countries, where no independent trade unions exists and the right of freedom of association is severely restrained this gap is only partially filled by labor rights or labor support NGOs. This article explores how the rise of CSR affects the development and organizational logics of such NGOs. It argues that it has both merits and weaknesses. Labor rights organizations can increase their room for maneuver, circumventing some political restrains by engaging as business in the field of CSR. On the downside, such a business orientation creates additional dependencies preventing strategies of worker rights improvements which focus on collective organizing and collective action. In sum, it is a delicate task for local organizations to balance their dependencies between the state and business in order to create space and expand what is politically accepted in an otherwise restrained environment. The figure below portrays labor NGOs between business and worker orientation and the available repertoires.


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The article is relevant to scientists and practitioners as it shows the sometimes unintended consequences of transnational influences on civil society in China. These findings are relevant to international trade unions and NGOs which try to empower labor rights organizations in China and to transnational business, CSR agents and multistakeholder initiatives as it helps them to better understand local opportunities and constrains of local organizations. The results are also of interest to transnational business, CSR agents and multistakeholder initiatives which aim at cooperating with civil society in their efforts to improve working conditions as it helps them to realize how their work might even unintentionally impact local organizations.

source: Zajak, Sabrina. 2013. “Transnational private regulation and the transformation of labour rights organizations in emerging markets: new markets for labour support work in China.” Journal of Asian Public Policy 6:178-195.

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