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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf.

  2. 2.

    Interviews conducted by Community Legal Education Centre regarding Better Factory Cambodia for the report “10 Years of the Better Factories Cambodia Project: A critical evaluation,” available at http://archive.cleanclothes.org/component/docman/doc_download/53-10-years-of-the-better-factories-project-english.

  3. 3.

    Clean Clothes Campaign and Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (2009), “Study on a Living Wage in the Export-Oriented Garment Sector in Bangladesh, (final draft),” April 5, 2009, p. 50, unpublished document on file.

  4. 4.

    Asia Floor Wage Alliance India (4 September 2011) “Researching Tier 1 Companies in India: 3 companies in 3 Garment Clusters,” unpublished research on file.

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Clean Clothes Campaign (1998) “Code of labour practices for the apparel industry including sportswear,” and ICFTU (1997) “Basic code of labour practice.”

  6. 6.

    See, for example, Tesco, for another example of a company that promotes the right to organize at its suppliers’ workplaces, while violating these rights at its own facilities (Compa 2010).

  7. 7.

    Maquila Solidarity Network. (2002). Codes Memo Update, November, No. 12.

  8. 8.

    Joseph, Lean, National Free Trade Union, interview March 26, 2011, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

  9. 9.

    Nova, Scott. Memo to Primary Contacts at WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities, 30 January 2008.

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Egels-Zandén, N., Merk, J. Private Regulation and Trade Union Rights: Why Codes of Conduct Have Limited Impact on Trade Union Rights. J Bus Ethics 123, 461–473 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1840-x

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Keywords

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