Decent Work in Global Supply Chains

Unit 6, Lecture 2 - Worker Strategies in a Global Economy


Most important factor affecting workers is the growth and geographic dispersion of global supply chains controlled by MNEs. Power interests in global supply chains are not only looking for low wages they are also looking for systems that control labor in order to weaken the potential for collective bargain and collective actions.

In the apparel industry there are 3 forms of labor control that lead to three different patterns of worker resistance (i.e. International Labor Accords, transnational campaigns tours, wildcat strikes).

An analysis of labor strategies in global supply chains must begin w/ an analysis of the labor control regime in which they are embedded.

Types of Labor Control Regimes:
- State labor control regimes: labor is controlled by a system of legal and extra-legal mechanisms designed to prevent or curtail independent worker organization and collective action (China / Vietnam → wildcat strikes)
o Official unions b/c of their links with the State do not respond to the needs of workers and the State prevents workers from having strong, direct ties with international advocacy groups → State blocks access to formal national institutional mechanism that might address workers’ concerns and also blocks workers’ ability to pursue a “boomerang” i.e. international pressure

- Market Labor control regime: unfavorable labor market conditions discipline labor, strong worker organizing is curtailed because workers are afraid that active participation in a union may result in job loss and prolonged unemployment (low-income countries w/ very weak labor markets such as Bangladesh and Indonesia → international accords)
- Employer labor control regime: highly repressive employer actions against workers including use of violence (Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Honduras → transnational corporate campaigns)

The types of labor control regimes illustrate dominant, not exclusive or static models of control.

How workers protest is partially shaped by how they are controlled.

Labor process theory = theories of labor control (i.e. hidden and informal mechanisms of hegemonic control, consent and resistance within capital-labor relationships)

Current patterns of labor control regimes in the apparel sector are largely a consequence of the recent dynamics of hyper-competitiveness fomented by restructuring and changing trade rules. Also important to competitiveness is the concentration of brand/retailers relative to suppliers. This resulted in a dramatic increase in power consolidation of lead firms relative to downstream suppliers. As such, the retailers and other buyers largely dictate the prices. The ability of lead firms to set the price paid to smaller production contractors has generated persistently low wages. The push for lead firms to demand just-in-time inventory has generated a work intensity crisis in workplaces. All major apparel exporting countries now fit into one of the three models of extreme labor control regimes.

Vietnam – authoritarian state labor control and wildcat strikes
By 2011, apparel sector was the largest source of formal sector employment in the country
Workers’ ability to response to concerns is limited by the state labor control regime
The official unions must authorize strikes and the unions, following the dictates of the Communist Party and its desire for social control and labor peace, do not organize strikes. By 2011, the country experienced 978 strikes annually most of which are remarkably successful. They are isolated to one factory because isolated strikes are tolerated by the State whereas coordinate strike activity is not. Time-sensitive tasks give workers a source of disruptive power. Not a sustainable solution to always wildcat strike.

Bangladesh – despotic market labor control and international accords
Workers’ sense extreme vulnerability, which contributes to a fragmented labor movement.
Freedom of association rights do not fully apply to workers in export processing zones (Bangladesh is one of a few countries which this true)

Honduras – repressive employer labor control and cross-border solidarity
Norma Mejia, garment worker who attempted to organize a Russell Athletic factory. They reached out to US labor and student activists. Russell is one of the largest producers of American collegiate apparel. They brought Honduran union leaders from the Russell factory to the United States to speak on university campuses. Roughly 100 major US universities terminated their licensing agreement with Russell on the basis of evidence of anti-union activities in Honduras. Eventually Russell reopened the factory and agreed to recognize the union, begin collective bargaining and adhere to a neutrality clause for all its other seven factories in Honduras.

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