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Local Worker Stryggles In The Global South

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In the article, “Local Worker Struggles in the Global South: reconsidering Northern impacts on international labor standards”, Wells (2009) acknowledges the dramatic rise of anti-sweatshop movements in the North. Although he concludes that it is Southern workers and local allies who are at the center of many successful efforts to improve work standards. In the past 30 years the transnationalisation of production from the global North to the South has played a large role in moving power away from workers to employers. Specifically, in the intensive labor assembly operations of athletic footwear and consumer electronics.

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Moreover, employees are facing pressures from their employers due to price and delivery pressures from global retailers. These pressures are taken out on employees in the form of decreased wages, inequality at work, and overtime. In the context of labor standards in the global south it is a race to the bottom. We have experienced 2 dependent phenomena. One of which being the dramatic rise in anti-sweatshop movements and the second being the adoption of labor-oriented ‘corporate social responsibilities’ policies by transnational corporations. These are both initiatives to stop global sweatshop actions. The main arguments discussed in the article, “Local Worker Struggles in the Global South: reconsidering Northern impacts on international labor standards”, Wells (2009) pointed out that these two phenomena have been overexaggerated and misinterpreted. This leads to miscommunication about the roles of the southern workers in labor improvements. In parts of the USA many Northern TNC’s have adopted CSR policies into their economic goals. The most well-known of these are corporate codes of conduct to monitor labor standards in TNC’s factories in the South.

These consist of a list of labor standards concerning child labor, health and safety, and other concerns to promote in their production chains. These codes also monitor the company’s compliance with the labor standards. Typically, TNC’s hire an ‘in house’ code monitor although this monitoring often lacks credibility due to distance between the employer and their workers. Many major Northern TNC’s hire NGO’s for third party monitoring. The main type of NGO are global auditing firms, business dominated NGO’s and multi-stakeholder NGO’s. These codes are often seen to be a big Northern contribution to the regulation of labor standards in the South, but it indeed is not. An examination of the code suggests that this prominent Northern contribution is weaker than commonly argued. One of the structural limits is the deficit in the resources available to third party monitors the TNC hire. In the apparel industry there are 200 000 to 300 000 export factories and up to 1 million small workshops.

This is far beyond NGO monitoring capacity. Especially in the competitive world of suppliers in apparel and electronics a variety of strong pressures often contradict labor standards enforcement. Manufacturers ability to hire and fire, to force overtime, and to pay low wages is essential to competition over low profit margins in supply chains driven by Northern retail buyers. Lean retailing is an added motivation for manufacturers to sweat labor. Pressures on garment manufacturers are leading to the weakening of code effectiveness. In a study on the impact of codes in the South, it has been concluded that codes did not have a significant impact on worker empowerment. A highly respected multi-stakeholder NGO has warned that garment factories with the highest labor standards could lose production contracts. Wells (2009) also touches on transnational advocacy networks (TAN’s), boomerang patterns and the Mexmode maquiladora.

There are many other case studies on Southern worker struggles to improve work standards in which Northern TAN’s played a secondary yet important role. Among these is Armbrusters-Sandovals study of the workers fight to build and defend their union at Kimi. These examples of the roles of Northern NGO’s play in workers struggles in the South, together with the weak impact of Northern CSR methods suggest that these Northern initiatives are more marginal than previously thought.

03 December 2019

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