Labor justice in global manufacturing: new actors for revitalizing industrial relations.

AuthorHossain, Md. Ismail
PositionReport - Abstract


The enforcement of neo-liberal economic globalization has stimulated the global manufacturing process through which capital shifts to developing countries for production and goods are brought back to developed countries for consumption. While people living in developing countries welcome global manufacturing for expansion of employment opportunities, unjust labor practices are shouldered on them. Vulnerable and exploitative labor conditions at global manufacturing sites have provoked strong debate about the ways of ensuring justice for global workers. Many industrial relations experts have argued that unjust labor conditions can be improved or eliminated by tripartite industrial relations system (e.g. Dunlop, 1958; Shen & Benson, 2008). However, tripartite industrial relations system faces great criticism for its ineffectiveness due to unequal power relations between the actors. In the demise of tripartite consultation, role of multinational corporations within the value chain has become crucial. Scholars who subscribe to this trend (Gereffi, 1994; Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Schrage, 2004; Mamic, 2004) conceive the idea that corporations hold power and also intend to improve working conditions because the consumers' movement against firms for violating labor rights jeopardizes the 'name and fame' of the company that may reduce their market competitiveness. Therefore, multinational corporations have developed their own "codes of conduct" combining core conventions of ILO and local labor laws to regulate labor practices of their overseas suppliers (Kaufman et al., 2004; Mamic, 2004). Brand companies have developed codes of conduct to achieve competitive advantages in the global market through increasing brand value and reputation based on the belief of corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, the effectiveness of CSR is constrained by corporations' impetus for profit maximization, greater competition in the market place, and insufficient state protection of labor rights. Greater concerns of the consumers can force the MNCs to be more responsible towards global labor justice (Mahon & Wartick, 2003; Esbenshade, 2004; Siltaoja, 2006). Therefore, the existing scholarship on employment relations triggers some unresolved questions such as, how and to what extend the traditional employment relations are functioning for ensuring labor justice at global factories? Who are the newly emerging actors and what roles are played by them for ensuring labor justice? This paper addresses these questions based on empirical evidences from Readymade Garment (RMG) industry of Bangladesh.

Defining Industrial Relations

The foremost and mostly used paradigm in 'Industrial Relations' (IR) system was the classical one developed by Dunlop. According to Dunlop (1958: 47) industrial relations systems are a composition of certain actors, contexts and ideology that binds IR systems together, and a body of rules created to govern the actors at the work place and work community. He identified three actors in IR system: (1) a hierarchy of managers and their representatives in supervision; (2) a hierarchy of workers and any of their representative; and (3) specialized government agencies concerned with workers, enterprises and their relationships. Collective bargaining is considered as the heart of industrial relations. According to its definition, collective bargaining occurs between an employer or employers' organization, and the representatives of employees. However, a neutral third party (the state) is required to stimulate the collective bargaining process which leads to a tripartite system. In a tripartite system, popularly known as tripartite employment relations, the government consults representatives of employers and workers, and involves them in the formulation of socio-economic policies and, in particular, in the legal framework of labor relations at the national and industry levels (Shen & Benson, 2008). However, the emergence of neo-liberal economic systems diminishes the potentials of traditional tripartite model of governance due to the decline of state power in regulating the labor. Considering the recent changes in global production systems, many scholars (Bellemare, 2000; Kessler & Bach, 2011; Donaghey et al., 2014) have argued for inclusion of new actors across the globe. Bellemare (2000:386) provided the expanded definition of industrial relation actor as "... an individual, group, or an institution that has the capability, through its action, to directly influence the industrial relation process, including the capability to influence the causal powers deployed by other actors in the IR environment.... To be a genuine actor, one must not only take action, but also have the capacity to take one's actions into consideration and to respond favorably to some of one's expectations or demands".

According to Bellemare, end users (consumers) are significant actors in IR systems because they can force global buyers to respect labor rights at the work place. Kessler and Bach (2011) also affirm the citizen-consumer as important actors in industrial relations system. According to the above definitions, a number of actors are directly or indirectly involved in shaping the IR system, namely, the traditional industrial actors (employers' organizations, employees' associations, and the state), and non-traditional newly emerging actors (multinational corporations, human rights and civil society organizations, consumer groups and social workers). Although the newly emerging actors are not the core part of tripartite industrial relations, they can take a central role of influencing the behavior of individual actors engaged in industrial relations system.

Data Sources & Methods

This study follows a qualitative research design within a framework of extended case method. Extended case method seeks to locate everyday life experiences in its extra-local and historical context, that is, how a specific social situation varies from place to place and how it has changed over time. It integrates broader economic and political forces in studying social situations. Burawoy (1998:7) says: "The extended case method applies reflexive science to ethnography in order to extract the general from the unique, to move from the "micro" to "macro" and to connect the present to the past in anticipation of the future, all by building on pre-existing theory". Extended case method is usually used in the field where wider knowledge is available and the aim is to extend the existing knowledge. The research that followed extended case method uses multiple sources (e.g.; observation, interviews, informal talks, focus group discussions) for acquiring real information. Data was generated through the experiences of the author's fieldwork on four RMG factories located in different parts of Dhaka city and surrounding areas, namely, Ashulia, Uttara, Tongi and Gazipur, the main industrial hubs of Bangladesh. Among the four factories, two were taken from each of the area of Export Processing Zones (EPZs) (1) and Non-EPZs areas of which one is large and another is small. The field work was conducted in two phases. The first phase was accomplished during the period from January to June 2013. The researchers spent the first four weeks for collecting different documentary information from the concerned ministries and offices, such as Ministry of Labor and Employment, Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Export Promotion Zone Authority (BEPZA), Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies and collected their reports, periodicals, bulletins, and visited their web pages. The researchers spent a large amount of time engaging in informal discussions with different stakeholders. During field work, interviews were conducted with 71 research participants which included 30 female workers, 18 employer/management staff, 6 representatives from six workers' unions, 3 representatives from the concerned government offices (the Ministry of Labor, the Directorate of the Inspection of...

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