Accepted paper:

Beyond workplace compliance? Portfolios of buyer engagement in labour standards in global garment production


Rachel Alexander
Chikako Oka (Royal Holloway University of London)
Niklas Egels-Zanden (University of Gothenburg)

Paper short abstract:

Exploring global value chain lead firms' roles in shaping labour standards in production countries, this paper presents a typology of engagement that considers lead firms as collective vs individual actors and whether connections are to direct suppliers or broader local governance systems.

Paper long abstract:

Faced with the limitations of the prominent supplier compliance approach to labour issues in global value chains (GVCs), lead firms have been experimenting with new ways to influence production processes. We propose a new typology of buyer engagement, incorporating two often overlooked dimensions: buyers' collective action and efforts that go beyond compliance at supplier factories. This paper focuses on the activities of a group of 60 large garment brands and retailers that are based in Germany, Sweden and the UK and rely on dispersed global production bases. Analysing data from 87 interviews with these firms along with published materials about the firms' behaviours, we identify and illustrate multiple distinct forms of engagement. Cutting across the dimensions of the typology, firms are found to use compliance, capacity building, and political advocacy to bring about change. The perspective presented highlights how lead firms' interactions extend beyond direct buyer-seller relationships to incorporate a variety of other actors including other lead firms and local governance actors, such as governments and NGOs. It also draws attention to the broad types of changes to local productive systems that lead firms are seeking to promote. This article fills important gaps in the literature by moving beyond the dominating focus on workplace compliance strategies in private labour regulation studies and dyadic buyer-supplier relationships prominent in the GVC literature.

panel H5
Global value chains, the state and the political economy of development