Voluntary initiatives in global value chains.Towards labour-led social upgrading?

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The organization of production in global value chains (GVCs) has been accompanied by a rise of informal and insecure work. Yet, the role of labour agency has received scant attention in the GVC and related literatures. Selwyn (2013) therefore demands to shift attention towards engagement with labour movements to identify what he terms ‘labour-led’ social upgrading. We engage with this plea by investigating the role of voluntary initiatives (VIs) as non-governmental systems of labour regulation in GVCs. The paper asks under which conditions VIs with a more active role for labour emerge in GVCs. In order to answer this question, we apply Wright’s (2000) theory of the factors enabling positive class compromise to a VI that has been implemented in the Indonesian sportswear industry: In June 2011, a Protocol on Freedom of Association (FoA) was signed by Indonesian trade unions, large Indonesian manufacturers and major multinational brands. Based on the analysis of this case, we show that, while the spatial dispersion of production has weakened state mechanisms for the guarantee of labour rights, new pressure points for labour have also emerged, e.g. brands’ reputation or just-in-time production. Besides, new possibilities for transnational labour networks have opened that strengthen workers’ associational power. Moreover, GVCs fragment capital in different factions, such as producers and brands. Their material concerns are not necessarily congruent. Workers’ movements might be able to benefit from such divergent interests. We conclude that if VIs are to create conditions under which decent work can be strengthened, the involvement and strength of local labour organizations is required and producers’ and/or buyers’ dependence on workers’ cooperation may act as a catalyst.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationThe Hague
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

SeriesISS working papers. General series

Bibliographical note


Jeroen Merk
Dr. Jeroen Merk is David Davies of Llandinam Fellow at the London School of Economics where he works on a project ‘re-inventing corporate accountability after the Rana Plaza collapse’. His research interests lie at the crossroads of international relations, political economy, social movements, and the governance institutions of global industrial relations. Since 2003, he has also been a research and policy coordinator at the International Secretariat of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a labour rights NGO with branches in 15 European countries and an extended network of partners in production countries.

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  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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