[We’re pleased to welcome authors Dr. Elke Schuessler of the Institute of Organization Science at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, Dr. Stephen J. Frenkel of the University of New South Wales, and Dr. Chris F. Wright of the University of Sydney Business School. They recently published an article in the ILR Review entitled “Focusing Events and Changes in the Governance of Labor Standards in Australian and German Garment Supply Chains,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Frenkel reflects on the inspiration for conducting this research:]
What motivated you to pursue this research
Globalization is a feature of the world economy. This is illustrated most sharply by the outsourcing of production to factories in developing countries. The resulting global supply chains raise questions about the pay and conditions of workers whose labour contributes to the final product. Absent adequate law enforcement and continuous pressure by large often multinational retail and marketing firms to reduce costs, factories and workers are subject to a ‘race to the bottom’ in what are commonly referred to as ‘labour standards.’ On the other hand, many lead firms are intent on avoiding reputational damage associated with worker exploitation, so they have become standards’ regulators, taking responsibility for ensuring that their suppliers abide by a code of labour standards’ conduct. Our research investigates similarities and differences in lead firm regulation policies with a view to advancing theory and offering insights into how the cost reduction v regulation puzzle might be resolved.
Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?
Our research has been strongly influenced by the Rana Plaza disaster of April 2013 when the collapse of a building in Dhaka, Bangladesh left 1,130 mainly female garment workers dead and over 2,000 injured. This incident highlighted regulatory failure in the Bangladesh garment export industry which has become a major supplier to lead firms in advanced Western countries. As a result, a new set of institutions were established by lead firms, global and local unions and international agencies to promote and regulate building and worker safety in the industry. This development provided an opportunity to examine the impact of these institutional changes on lead firm and suppliers’ attitudes and behaviour regarding regulation of worker safety and labour standards more generally.
In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?
There is no systematic publicly available knowledge regarding lead firms’ responses to Rana Plaza and ensuing institutional changes. We explore why some lead firms joined the Accord a collective agreement, signaling a preference for high safety standards and a commitment to sharing decision-making with unions while other firms responded in less demanding ways. The lead firms we examine are drawn from comparative samples of Australian and German companies which enables analysis of firm type, country of origin norms, the role of stakeholders, and host country institutions in explaining our findings. Our study has prompted a broader project currently underway that links lead firms in Australia, Germany, Sweden and the UK with garment factories and workers in Bangladesh (see http://www.garmentgov.de.) We are tracing the impact of lead firm policies and institutional influences on factory labour standards, including how these are perceived by management and workers respectively. Our comprehensive approach emphasizing the importance of a ‘focusing event’ and the regulatory influence of resulting institutions on factory management and workers, is likely to make a major contribution to the theory and practice of global garment supply chain governance.