Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Rory Horner, Global Development Institute

In a global economy increasingly structured through global production networks, existing public and private governance approaches are struggling to promote improved labour conditions and sustainability, while new challenges are also emerging.

With this in mind, the Global Development Institute’s (GDI) Global production networks, labour and trade research group hosted a workshop earlier this month on “Global value chains and social upgrading”, to take stock of this field and to bring together a group of more than 20 emerging scholars to discuss their recent research on this issue. The workshop was generously funded by the Brown International Advanced Research Institute (BIARI) Alumni Research Initiative, as follow-up support to alumni – GDI’s Rory Horner and Rachel Alexander, GDI alumni Shamel Azmeh, Fabiola Mieres, Vivek Soundararajan and Annika Surmeier – of their fantastic two-week annual summer school which focuses on addressing global issues. The GDI also provided considerable support, with Manchester having led much of the growing field of research on social upgrading in global production networks, notably through the Capturing the Gains project.

In her opening keynote plenary on “Global value chains, market-making and the rise of precarious work”, Jennifer Bair traced cases of precarious work from New York city a century ago to contemporary Bangladesh to highlight how outsourcing through global value chains gives rise to challenging labour conditions.

Within global value chains, private governance has proliferated in recent years, and Greg Distelhorst, Judith Stroehle and Scott Sanders all sought to explore the impacts of, and limits to, compliance with private standards. Samia Hoque provided evidence from her recent collaborative paper on Bangladesh.

Gale-Raj Reichert’s work on the electronics industry, Vivek Soundararajan’s work on sourcing agents and boundary work and Annika Surmeier’s work on tourism presented further examples of labour challenges across a variety of sectors.

Fabiola Mieres provided an alternative notion to corporate-driven mechanisms through a notion of “worker-driven social responsibility”, while Matthew Alford highlighted public-private governance challenges in South African fruit. Indeed the challenges for both public and private governance was a recurring theme in the workshop discussions.

As public governance attempts at addressing social upgrading issues, international trade agreements are also now including social standards, as highlighted through Mirela Barbu’s work on the European Union’s Free Trade Agreements, and Shamel Azmeh’s presentation on the case of the Jordan-US trade agreement.

Prospects for social upgrading must consider gender, power, and embeddedness, as highlighted through Nikita Pardesi’s work on oil and gas in Trinidad and Tobago, Eleni Sifaki’s work on grape production in Greece and Judith Krauss’s recently completed doctoral research on sustainability challenges in the cocoa sector.

The challenges for better social outcomes in GPNs also go beyond labour. Anke Hagemann explored the impact of participation in GPNs on urban areas, while Rachel Alexander demonstrated the difficulty UK cotton-garment retailers face in promoting sustainability in their extended supply networks from India.

At the same time, new challenges for social upgrading emerge. The growth of transnational online labour markets within “virtual production networks” warrants growing attention as Alex Wood highlighted. Now more than ever, in today’s increasingly multi-polar global economy with growing South-South trade, social upgrading must also be considered beyond end markets in the global North. Jinsun Bae’s work on Myanmar’s garment industry, Corinna Braun-Munzinger’s work on corporate social responsibility in China and Natalie Langford’s work on social standards and tea production in India all made this case.

Workshop participants received detailed feedback and had opportunities to discuss their work with leading scholars in this field – Jennifer Bair (University of Colorado-Boulder), Peter Lund-Thomsen (Copenhagen Business School) and Andrew Schrank (Brown) as well as Manchester’s own Stephanie Barrientos, Martin Hess, and Khalid Nadvi.

With continued challenges for both private and public regulation of labour and sustainability issues in the global economy as well as new challenges emerging, the debate must continue. Look out for the research of these emerging scholars we hosted at GDI as it pushes this conversation forward.