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On the 24th of April 2018, many people around the world commemorated the over 1000 lives lost and the 1800 people injured during the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Global Garment Supply Chain Governance Project, together with King’s College London, took this date as an opportunity to bring together the community of international scholars investigating the consequences of this disaster for the governance of labor standards in the global garment industry. Given the high and immediate policy relevance of this topic, the conference was not just purely academic: several representatives from lead firms, supplier factories, policy makers and civil society actively participated in debating and interpreting the research results, and also constituted the strong opening panel. So what are the news for global governance?

A focal point of the debate was the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year multi-stakeholder, transnational collective agreement co-signed by over 200 brands and the UNI and IndustriaALL global unions that not only commits brands to pay into a centrally organized safety inspection regime and to ensure continuity of orders for a limited period, but also demands the introduction of worker participation into safety committees in garment factories and provides for legally binding arbitration mechanisms if complaints are unresolved. While Mark Anner, Jennifer Bair and Jeremy Blasi argue that the Accord is not unprecedented, pointing to the “jobbers agreements” drafted between workers, contractors, and lead firms in the US apparel supply chain to ensure fair prices and stable orders in the earlier 20th century, most would agree that the Accord’s governance model is unique in a global supply chain context. Thus, it is often hailed as a solution to the industry’s ongoing and pressing problems regarding labour standards. The Accord departs most from previous initiatives in that it is a collective approach for addressing the “race to the bottom” dynamic of competing on the lowest possible labour standards characterizing the garmen industry since decade – an issue which lead firms only now begin to see as a collective action problem. In analyzing the history of the Accord, Juliane Reinecke and Jimmy Donaghey  point out, however, that the Accord was not crafted as a reaction to the Rana Plaza disaster. In fact, it existed previously as a memorandum of understanding on building and worker safety by two lead firms following earlier factory accidents – but other lead firms were not interested in signing it before the fatal factory collapse occurred. Does the Accord stand up to these hopes?

As argued by Miriam Neele, on the panel as Head of Signatory Engagement of the Accord, the Accord program has now covered approximately over 2 million workers in the Bangladesh garment industry and has ensured the remediation of about 85% of the factories covered by the Accord. Data on over 1000 garment workers collected by Naila Kabeer, London School of Economics, likewise indicates that there has been positive change on those issues that Western lead firms can influence, such as building safety and working time, at least in those factories covered by the Accord and by the US-driven Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both Frank Hoffer (on the panel as representative of the new Action Collaboration Transformation initiative) and Giesela Burckhardt from the German NGO Femnet, however, stress that wages still need to go up – an issue that is simply not covered by the Accord. Additionally, there is some scepticism as to the actual scalability of the Accord model to other issues and other countries. The renewal of the Accord in Bangladesh has resulted in a rather slow process of getting brands to sign up to the agreement again, and the initiative has faced intense critique from various Bangladeshi stakeholders who think that the Accord has lost its purpose in Bangladesh. In a study conducted by Steve Frenkel (UNSW) and Chris Wright (University of Sydney) and myself shortly after the Rana Plaza disaster we found that intense stakeholder pressure was a main driver behind firms’ willingness to sign the Accord. In the absence of such immediate pressure, it seems that the majority of firms is only reluctantly willing to engage in stricter forms of labour standards regulation, such as those embraced by the Accord.

At least four additional problems must be noted. First, as argued by Kabeer, certain worker-related issues cannot be influenced by Western brands. Most importantly, these are the (mis-)behaviour of supervisors and the still very low level of unionization and worker representation in Bangladesh. Here local stakeholders are called upon to bring forward changes. Second, as repeatedly noted by Dorothee Baumann-Pauly and her colleagues from the NYU Stern school of business, the current safety schemes has at best created “islands of compliance” in which some of the best, most well-financed factories are getting better, while the smaller, already struggling factories remain off the radar – and have notoriously poor standards. Third, the Accord remains an auditing tool – and audits can easily turn into mere reputational devices for lead firms rather than creating actual accountability and liability for brands and their auditors, as Carolijn Terwind, lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), highlighted on our panel. Fourth, evidence from a survey on 150 factory managers in Bangladesh conduced by Shahidur Rahman (BRAC University) and Kazi Mahmudur Rahman (ULAB) suggests that lead firms rarely support factory’s remediation efforts financially. Thus, while suppliers value continuity of orders, they feel heavily squeezed between ongoing price pressure exerted by lead firms and increased demands regarding infrastructure and working conditions.

An important structural condition must be noted though, which in my view is a core boundary condition for seeing continued improvements in labour standards in Bangladeshi garment factories: unless digitalization is able to replace manual labour in this industry, large volumes of garment production will remain in Bangladesh because, as China continues to reduce its capacities, no other country is to date able to absorb the high demand for garment production. In this sense, the race to the bottom is currently on hold – an unforeseen opportunity for stakeholders in the West as well as in Bangladesh to continue pressing for stricter regulations and better labour standards in this industry.

On June the 9th 2016, More than 12,000 workers from different Yangon factories were protesting in Hlaing Tharyar township against low wages, forced and unpaid overtime, and the firing of organized workers. They were also protesting against the employers’ ignorance against the decisions made by the Dispute Settlement Arbitration Council.

With the introduction of the new labour law and the democratic opening in Myanmar since 2011, workers increasingly articulate inhumane working conditions and labour disputes are rising. Trade unions play a crucial role in helping workers formulating and articulating their complaints. Claiming rights is an important driver for democratic change in a political environment which was characterized by brutal repression of trade unions and labour rights under the military regime for over 50 years. This article discusses the link between trade union’s role in the interpretation, spread, and application of the labour law and the current model of worker organizing. Unions are important vehicles combining legal institution building and democratization trough worker participation. This is important in a context where the labour law, a key pillar in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, is not coherent and the same concepts and words have different meanings to different actors. Today, a multitude of actors, including lawyers, firms, international organizations, the bureaucracy, global and local trade unions, as well as social movements are involved in shaping the meaning of law. Thereby they contribute to the process of its codification.

This contribution shows that law and trade union building are tightly intertwined in Myanmar: Labour disputes have become a key driver for trade union organizing. I point out three ways through which trade union building is linked to labour disputes, shaping the meaning of law in due course: solving disputes through workplace negotiations, supporting dispute settlements through arbitration, and more fundamentally though the involvement of labour in the labour law reform process.

Overall, while trade unions are important for turning law into a social reality, considerable barriers remain leaving employers often disregarding decisions made by the arbitration council and other legal innovations. Read the rest of this entry »

Several contributions in this blog have been dealing with different examples of the transnational mobilization of labor rights by social movement organizations and trade unions, targeting transnational companies, international organizations or states to introduce and enforce core labor rights and accept freedom of associations (e.g. the Asian FLoor Wage Campaign, People’s Tribunals or the Asia-Europe People’s Forum). There are other interesting blogs which discuss the development of chances and limits of transnational labor solidarity and transnational labor rights activism under conditions of global restructuring ( transnational labor) or country specific cases (e.g. China).

Different blog entries give interesting examples of single incidents and their immediate consequences. However, sometimes they tell little about how the different strategies relate to each other and what kind of changes they produce when looking at them over longer period of time. In my recent paper (“pathways of transnational activism”), I try to develop an analytical framework which allows for analyzing the dynamic interplay between activism, transnational institutions, and domestic contexts. It integrates insights from social movement research on transnational collective action and insights from institutional theorists on institutional interactions. I introduced three concepts which intend to connect the ideas that transnational activists – social movements, trade unions and worker alike when they engage in transnational contention – mobilize in multiple arenas at once, addressing multiple targets (state and private) therewith changing the environment (both national and domestic) in which they operate: Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

It is a sad occasion which currently reminds us of questions about large-distance solidarity, transnational communities and commitment – topics which the workshop Mobility and Civil Society: How Social Commitment Takes Place addresses at the University Freiburg, Germany, in December.

During the last weeks, the second largest industrial tragedy in history has raised public awareness and debate about global inequality of international labor protection once again. The Rana Plaza complex close to Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24. As the rescue work around the former Tung Hai garment factory is still not completed, the reported death toll moves up to around a thousand people. Yesterday, eight people died in another fire in a garment factory in Dhaka.

Read the rest of this entry »

Several contributions in this blog have discussed different forms of transnational labor rights activism, transnational modes of governing working conditions in global supply chains and their local consequences. In all these contributions, the structural reasons for a core concerns of workers – their low income (“poverty wages”) have not been discussed. In a very recent paper (“expanding repertoires of labor: multi-scalar counterstrategies in the Asian garment industry” which will be presented at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin on the 8th of October 2012), Jeroen Merk and Sabrina Zajak discuss the reasons behind poverty wages across Asian countries, reasons which make multi-scalar strategies of labor necessary to counter these problems. A brief summary shall be given next. Read the rest of this entry »

At this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association from 16 – 22 August in Denver/Colorado, the Section on Global and Transnational Sociology featured a number of highly interesting panels and pre-conference activities. Panel topics included Global Governance (co-sponsored with Sociology of Law), Transnational Processes and Institutions, Gender, Globalization and Transnationalism, and Transnational Networks. In addition, a pre-conference meeting, organized by Peggy Levitt and Liz Boyle, discussed new ways of seeing and knowing in transnational and global research. At the Denver meeting the outgoing chair  Sarah Babb concluded her highly successful term of office and welcomed the new  chair Julia Adams (see interview). Read the rest of this entry »

The theme of transnational governance has become again a hot topic at this years’ conference of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE). The SASE’s 24th Annual Meeting is taking places at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge on June 28-30, 2012. It brings together academics from various disciplinary backgrounds to discuss the issue of “Global Shifts Implications for Business, Government and Labour”. One of the mini conference themes within SASE (“Regulating Labor and Environment: Beyond the Public-Private Divide“) explicitly deals with the dynamics and impacts of transnational governance arrangements and their relationship towards national regulation (see also  other recent blog entry).

This mini conference brings together a variety of contributions dealing with the question of how transnational standards are effectively enforced locally. While several contributions discuss the “top down” implementation of rules one panel in particular looks at the domestic mobilization of private and state regulation. The panel “mobilization of private and state regulation” addresses the question of the relationship between state and other forms of regulation by examining how citizens and communities make use of and try to mobilize national and extraterritorial judicial, non-judicial and/or voluntary mechanisms in order to seek redress for local grievances: Scholars present ample empirical evidence from different countries and continents including China, South Africa, India, Indonesia and Brazil and discuss the following questions:

How do local societal actors make use of and employ transnational and national regulation? When do local actors fail in their attempts to mobilize domestic and transnational regulation, and why? And in general, what do we learn about the role of domestic citizens, workers or non-governmental organizations for putting regulatory regimes into practice and broader contextual conditions which either enhance local redress mechanisms, or undermine their capacity to address grievances?

Read the rest of this entry »

The anti-sweatshop movement has been revitalizing and exploring a new form of localized transnational collective action: A Peoples’ Tribunal on the Minimum Living Wage and Decent Working in Cambodia. The idea of People’s Tribunals is not new and has originated in the human rights area. Among the first international People’s Tribunals, which examines and provides judgments on violations of human rights was the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal founded in 1976 in Italy. Since then People’s Tribunals have spread as an action repertoire for human rights activists through a range of countries in order to promote justice and mobilize victims of human rights abuses independently of the state judiciary. Its goals have been about popularizing the notion of justice; educating the public; encouraging debate on human rights issues and democratizing legal processes.  Therewith it is a legalistic, but soft instrument to provide justice in cases where the state has failed to do so.

In the area of labor rights violations, it is a rather new adoption of this instrument. In Cambodia it has been used to investigate the violation of labor rights, in particular the poverty payment. Its aim it to improve the working conditions and raise the wage level in in the Cambodian garment industry.

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I would like to use our blog to draw our readers’ attention to a mini-conference that I organize together with Tim Bartley, Nicole Helmerich and Chikako Oka titled “Regulating Labor and Environment: Beyond the Public-Private Divide”. The mini-conference will take place in the framework of the 2012 Annual Conference of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) at MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) on June 28-30, 2012.

The central question that we would like to address during the mini-conference is what the implications of global shifts and transnational standards for domestic regulatory projects in labor and environmental fields are. On the one hand, we invite papers that seek to explain how local contexts shape implementation and effectiveness of labor and environmental regulation in a globalizing world. On the other hand, our focus is the intersection between public and private forms of environmental and labor governance. To sum up, we seek to examine transnational-domestic and private-public links in transnational labor and environmental governance. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
November 2018
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