Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 123, Issue 3, pp 461-473

First online:

Private Regulation and Trade Union Rights: Why Codes of Conduct Have Limited Impact on Trade Union Rights

  • Niklas Egels-ZandénAffiliated withDepartment of Business Administration, School of Business Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg Email author 
  • , Jeroen MerkAffiliated withInternational Secretariat Clean Clothes Campaign

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Codes of conduct are the main tools to privately regulate worker rights in global value chains. Scholars have shown that while codes may improve outcome standards (such as occupational health and safety), they have had limited impact on process rights (such as freedom of association and collective bargaining). Scholars have, though, only provided vague or general explanations for this empirical finding. We address this shortcoming by providing a holistic and detailed explanation, and argue that codes, in their current form, have limited impact on trade union rights due to (i) buyers paying lip service to trade union rights, (ii) workers being treated as passive objects of regulation in codes of conduct, (iii) auditing being unable to detect and remediate violations of trade union rights, (iv) codes emphasizing parallel means of organizing, (v) suppliers having limited incentives for compliance, and (vi) codes being unable to open up space for union organizing when leveraged in grassroots struggles. Our arguments suggest that there is no quick fix for codes’ limited impact on trade union rights, and that codes, in their current form, have limited potential to improve trade union rights. We conclude by discussing ways in which codes of conduct, and private regulation of worker rights more generally, could be transformed to more effectively address trade union rights.


Codes of conduct Freedom of association Private regulation Supplier relationships Trade union rights Worker rights