Academic journal article Capital & Class

Global Production Networks, Labour and Small Firms

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Global Production Networks, Labour and Small Firms

Article excerpt

Introduction

In this article we are concerned with the dynamics of the economic organisation and the restructuring of the geography of contemporary global capitalism, especially the development of global production networks (GPNs), the position of small firms in such networks, and the implications for worker organisation and resistance of such positioning. In particular, we suggest that some analyses appear to consign workers in small firms in these networks to a necessarily tenuous, dependent and powerless position. By way of contrast, we argue that understanding the way in which small firms are geographically connected to other firms and how they are spatially embedded allows us to see that they and the workers who labour in them can in fact have significant agency. Such a spatial awareness, then, challenges those analyses of present-day globalisation that fail to theorise the importance of capitalism's geographical organisation to the way it operates as an economic system, and which see this organisation as simply the reflection on the Earth's surface of the actions of collective capital: that is to say, as a social artefact upon which workers have little influence. (For additional arguments on the importance of taking issues of spatiality more seriously in analyses of work and employment, see Herod et al. 2007; Rainnie et al. 2007; McGrath-Champ et al. 2010; Rainnie, McGrath-Champ and Herod 2010; and Rainnie et al. 2011.)

The paper is divided into five main sections. The first very briefly considers some ongoing changes in the way transnational corporations (TNCs) are organised and some geographical patterns of recent restructuring, thereby providing a context for what follows. The second section discusses GPNs' geographical embeddedness and introduces conceptual schema concerning workers' positioning vis-a-vis GPNs. The third section outlines some approaches to GPNs that have endeavoured to address the role of labour, although they have tended to focus on large firms and to ignore small firms and the agency of their workers. The fourth section develops the argument concerning small firms as being integral to the amalgam that constitutes GPNs, rather than simply as being subservient components thereof, by linking small firms' activities to broader arguments about uneven and combined development. The fifth section links these themes together, arguing that locationally situated analysis of the labour process that includes bona fide conceptualisation of the role of small business is crucial to a robust understanding of GPNs.

Globalisation, transnational corporations and economic restructuring

It is a truism to state that the global economy is becoming ever more interconnected and networked. What Harvey (1989) calls 'time-space compression' means that goods, capital, information and people can now move across the Earth's surface more quickly than ever before in human history. In the process, geographically distant places are becoming ever more linked together. Despite the self-evident nature of this statement, there are some important aspects of the ways in which this interconnectivity is coming about that are worth detailing. In particular, as Dicken (2011: 20) points out, one aspect of the global economy's mounting interconnectedness is that the growth of trade has been outpacing the growth of manufacturing output in recent years. In turn, the growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) has been outpacing the growth of trade, such that the primary mechanism of bringing about interconnectedness has now shifted from trade to FDI. The common element in these developments is the transnational corporation (TNC). Indeed, TNCs have come to play an increasingly dominant role as geographical integrators of the global economy relative to, say, the types of small firms that have been the focus of classical economic theorising since Adam Smith. For instance, TNCs presently account for two-thirds of world exports of goods and services, of which a significant share is intra-firm trade. …

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