Academic journal article Global Governance

New Moves in Transnational Advocacy: Getting Labor and Economic Rights on the Agenda in Unexpected Ways

Academic journal article Global Governance

New Moves in Transnational Advocacy: Getting Labor and Economic Rights on the Agenda in Unexpected Ways

Article excerpt

Activists involved in human rights advocacy across borders may share common interests in changing the status quo--but they do not always agree on the rights centrally at issue, nor the best strategy for promoting and protecting them. This is particularly true in campaigns in which "economic rights" claims emerge. Two new mechanisms I develop in this article shed light on the complexities of transnational advocacy and norms evolution. Two case studies offer insights into the operationalization of the mechanisms: a campaign to prevent child labor in Bangladesh, and a campaign to prevent employment discrimination against pregnant workers in Mexico. KEYWORDS: economic rights, transnational advocacy, child labor, Bangladesh, Mexico.


New forms of communications and cheaper and faster modes of travel in the 1990s, coupled with a lessening of the Cold War-era polarization of human rights, resulted in a dramatic increase in cross-border advocacy on rights in general. While civil and political rights had traditionally been the focus of most Western human rights advocacy, (1) economic rights claims have begun to emerge through a process marked by differences of opinion among activists themselves over the nature of human rights and the best way to protect and promote them.

In this article, I develop two mechanisms that add to the rich existing literature on transnational advocacy and norms evolution by offering insight into the bottom-up aspects of these processes. (2) The mechanisms I identify here provide poorer and less politically powerful members of such networks with a resource for influencing how norms are interpreted and how corresponding policy priorities are set in the context of transnational advocacy campaigns. (3)

Empirically, I focus on two high-profile cases in the 1990s wave of advocacy: a campaign to eliminate child labor in Bangladesh's export garment industry, and a campaign to prevent discrimination against pregnant workers in Mexico. These cases are representative of the wider series of campaigns that occurred during that decade, yet each has unique policy significance.

The Bangladesh campaign helped bring the issue of child labor to international prominence and resulted in the first ever Memorandum of Understanding brokered between business, government, and United Nations agencies to assist child workers who had been removed from factories. The Mexico campaign involved the first and only gender-focused complaint lodged against a government by activists using the labor side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Each case has generated considerable debate over how to prioritize rights and over the impact of such choices on the lives of people these campaigns were intended to help.

Despite significant differences in the campaigns, both cases provide similar evidence of new moves in transnational advocacy by less powerful actors in cross-border networks. From a scholarly perspective, the mechanisms identified here offer new tools for theory building. From a policy perspective, these new mechanisms illuminate the creative strategies some transnational activists have employed to get "new" human rights concerns (such as economic rights) on the table for negotiation. Data from more than a hundred interviews with participants and observers of both the Mexico and the Bangladesh campaigns, analysis of campaign archives, and review of secondary source data have enabled me to identify the factors that influenced how particular mechanisms emerged in each case. I relate these mechanisms, in turn, to a broader discussion of how normative understandings evolve in the context of transnational advocacy and beyond.

Mechanisms in Theory

Mechanisms are "frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns ... which allow us to explain, but not predict" events, according to Jon Elster. (4) They are the building blocks of theory, useful in constructing partial explanations. …

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