Global Labour Rights and Sustainable Development through Global Supply Chains? (Academic Panel)

For decades, development theory and practice focused on the expansion of global markets. Prosperity and poverty are understood in terms of inclusion vs. exclusion from a global system of capital accumulation. The development strategies of the countries in the Global South have been based on export-led growth and industrialisation, reliant on low-waged work and deregulation of labour markets, positioning them at the low-value-added end of global supply chains.

Global supply chains are marred by labour rights abuses, low wages and exploitative working conditions. This form of organization of production drawson differences in wages and labour rights regulation between the Global North and the South, which raises important questions about how much real ‘developmental’ outcomes these chains can provide and at what cost? Selwyn (2016) argues that the dynamic across these chains are fundamental to rising inequalities and therefore would be better described as Global Poverty Chains. With instances of workers’ rights abuses on the rise globally (ITUC 2016) and profit shares for lead firms continuing to rise, dynamics throughout global supply chains need to be re-examined. In the global garment trade, for example, prices paid by US and EU buyers for Asian exports have declined, facilitating rising profits for global brands and retailers and causing pressures on factories and in particular, workers. Power dynamics across these chains are skewed and not simply encompassed within national boundaries.These observationswere recently emphasized by the International Labour Organisation in its’ first general discussion on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains at the 105th International Labour Conference in 2016.

For the first time, the need to improve labour rights globally has been introduced in the global development agenda in the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 8 refers to the promotion of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. It remains unclear, however, how the dominant development paradigm that continues to advocate for export-led growth based on the exploitative production patters, will be conjoined with the protection of labour rights world-wide. The question becomes all the more topical as the role of private sector is assigned an increasing role within the new definition of official development assistance (ODA) that is emerging from the discussions at the OECD Development Assistance Committee.
This panel will address these concerns by focusing on the following question:
Can labour rights be feasibly protected without fundamentally questioning the development model based on export-led growth and the logic of global supply chains?

Specific questions that that the panel seeks to answer include:

Can labour rights be feasibly protected without fundamentally questioning the development model based on export-led growth and the logic of global supply chains?

• Does export-led growth bring substantial benefits that go beyond the creation of low-paying jobs?
• What kind of strategies can improve the quality and impact of these jobs?
• Under what conditions does insertion in GSCs increase/reduce existing inequalities?
• How do the power dynamics of Global Supply Chains affect their impact on the countries of the Global South? How can power imbalances be addressed?
• What is the role of the labour movement – at the global and local level – in improving the positive impact of GSCs?
• How can the SDG framework be useful for the promotion of labour rights? What kind of mechanisms can ensure that focus on employment creation does not happen at the expense of quality of employment (“decent work” and improved labour rights)?
• How can labour rights be protected in GSCs? What kind of regulatory mechanisms are needed? What is the role of trade agreements?


Anna Salmivaara, Department of Political and Economic Studies University of Helsinki

David Cichon, Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin