Academic journal article International Journal of Labour Research

Worker Resistance in Global Supply Chains: Wildcat Strikes, International Accords and Transnational Campaigns *

Academic journal article International Journal of Labour Research

Worker Resistance in Global Supply Chains: Wildcat Strikes, International Accords and Transnational Campaigns *

Article excerpt

Workers in global value chains are finding new strategies to address harsh working conditions in global supply chains. These strategies are shaped not only by the exigencies of hyper-competitive global production regimes, but also by state structures and local market conditions. The highly statist system of Viet Nam with its party-controlled official unionism has engendered a powerful wave of wildcat strikes. The harsh, despotic labour market conditions in Bangladesh, with a weak and fragmented labour movement, have pushed activists to pursue international accords. Hegemonic labour control in Honduras, built on factory-level repression, has motivated labour organizing and transnational corporate campaigns.

Thus, an analysis of labour strategies in global supply chains must begin with an analysis of the labour control regimes in which they are embedded. Proponents of a race-to-the-bottom argument would suggest that production goes where wages are lowest, but that argument cannot explain why China continues to dominate apparel production while its wages are four times higher than in Bangladesh. At the same time, those who suggest that production goes where logistics are the most efficient and economies of scale are the greatest (as in China) cannot explain why Viet Nam is one of the fastestgrowing major apparel exporters in the world, or why Honduras is the largest Latin American exporter.

Buyers in apparel global value chains want not only to keep costs low, but also to reduce the likelihood of disruption to supply chains caused by worker organization and mobilization. Indeed, what this article will show is that the ten top apparel exporters in the world today reflect three models of labour control. These include state labour control regimes, market labour control regimes, and employer labour control regimes. In the case of state labour control, labour is controlled by a system of legal and extra-legal mechanisms designed to prevent or curtail independent worker organization and collective action. Extreme examples of such regimes include China and Viet Nam, which I label as authoritarian state labour control regimes.

In market labour control regimes, unfavourable labour market conditions discipline labour; strong worker organizing is curtailed because workers are afraid that active participation in a union may result in job loss and prolonged unemployment or underemployment. Low-income countries with very weak labour markets, such as Bangladesh and Indonesia, exemplify despotic versions of market labour control regimes.

Finally, employer labour control regimes in their most extreme form include highly repressive employer actions against workers, including the use of violence or the threat of the use of violence. Examples of such regimes can be seen in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

These three general forms of control are not mutually exclusive or static; all countries have had elements of each system and all countries go through changes over the course of their histories. Bangladesh is a market labour control regime, but workers in Bangladesh also have been killed while organizing collective action. And in Yiet Nam, control is mainly exercised through an authoritarian State, but the fear of unemployment also looms large and serves to increase worker discipline. In sum, these are typologies of labour control regimes that illustrate dominant, not exclusive or static, models of control. They should be seen as a heuristic tool used to elucidate the relations between typical labour control regimes, which are present to various degrees in all cases.

This article makes a second claim: the three models of labour control outlined above in their more extreme manifestations have engendered three patterns of worker resistance: wildcat strikes, international accords and transnational corporate campaigns. That is, how workers protest is partially shaped by how they are controlled. Workers with extremely weak labour market power will have limited effectiveness in attempting to organize and protest at enterprise level since they can be easily replaced, just as workers facing repressive employers and a complicit State will be disinclined to believe they can resolve their demands locally. …

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