1 Towards a Relational Analysis of the Enabling and Constraining Conditions for Local Union Agency in Garment Producing Countries

For newly industrialising countries worldwide, the global garment industry is considered a vehicle for economic and social development (Dicken 2015; Gereffi 1994, 1999). Particularly in Asian countries, the emergence of export-garment industries producing for US and European retailers has propelled industrialisation processes and created jobs for millions of workers (ILO 2015). In particular for low-skilled or unskilled workers, the garment industry can facilitate access to the formal labour market and—where state and industry actors invest in vocational education and training—also important upskilling opportunities (Maurer 2011). Today, Asian countries account for eight out of the top ten global garment exporters (WTO 2020: 119). In these countries, on average, half of all manufacturing jobs are in the garment sector (ILO 2018: vii). The garment industry is also considered an important driver of female economic empowerment in the region, with women comprising the major share of the workforce in most Asian countries (ILO 2015). In India, for example, the textiles and apparelFootnote 1 sector provides direct employment for about 45 million people, of which about 70% are women (Indian Ministry of Textiles 2018; Make in India n.d.). Approximately 50% of the Indian textiles and apparel sector correspond to the ready-made garment industry with one quarter of produced apparels being sold on the global market (CareRatings 2019: 1).

Despite the significant contribution of the Asian export-garment industry to economic development and employment creation in the region, the industry has been widely criticised for frequent labour rights violations, low wages and bad working conditions (see, e.g., Hale and Wills 2005; Jenkins and Blyton 2017; Mezzadri 2017; Ruwanpura 2016). Anti-sweatshop movements and consumer organisations from the Global North have attributed these bad conditions to global fashion retailers’ and brands’ ‘predatory purchasing practices’ that ‘squeeze’ suppliers and workers (Anner 2019, 2020; Esbenshade 2004). Against this background, public and academic discourse has largely focussed on private regulatory mechanisms—such as Codes of Conduct or Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives—as well as on international labour standards as tools for promoting ‘decent work’ in the global garment industry (see, e.g., Bartley and Egels-Zandén 2015; Hess 2013; Hughes et al. 2008; Lindholm et al. 2016; Lund-Thomsen and Lindgreen 2018). In the same way, literature from economic geography and labour studies has predominantly highlighted the role of Northern actors—and particularly of transnational consumer and NGO networks—as main agents for change (Hauf 2017; see, e.g., Kühl 2006; Merk 2009). Most recently, legislative projects obligating companies in Global North countries to implement due diligence obligations along their supply chains—such as the French ‘Loi de Vigilance’Footnote 2 or the German ‘Supply Chain Act’Footnote 3—have attracted great public attention as potential mechanisms for improving working conditions in the garment industry (see, e.g., Beckers et al. 2021; Clerc 2021; Maihold et al. 2021). However, far less attention has been paid to the role of workers in global garment producing countries as agents capable of improving their own working and living conditions (Kumar 2019a: 351; Wells 2009).

A notable exception is provided by a growing corpus of studies combining Global Commodity Chain (GCC)/ Global Value Chain (GVC)/ Global Production Network (GPN) analysis with perspectives from Labour Process Theory and labour geography, which have been at the forefront of exploring the conditions and strategies for the agency of workers and unions in garment producing countries (see, e.g., Anner 2015b; Doutch 2021; Kumar 2014, 2019a; Ruwanpura 2015; Zajak 2017). These studies form part of two broader debates in economic and labour geography concerned with labour control and labour agency in GVCs/GPNs (Coe et al. 2008; Coe and Jordhus-Lier 2011; Cumbers et al. 2008; Newsome et al. 2015; Rainnie et al. 2011; Taylor et al. 2015). Drawing on Marxist theories, studies on labour control and labour agency in GVCs/GPNs highlight the exploitative nature of capitalist production as the root cause for ‘indecent work’ and stress that lasting improvements can only be achieved through collective worker organisation in garment producing countries (Selwyn 2013; Kumar 2019b: 351f.). A central concern of these studies has hence been to examine mechanisms of exploitation as well as conditions and strategies for the collective resistance of workers in garment producing countries.

Studies on labour control in the garment GVC/GPN have contributed in particular to our understanding of constraints for collective worker and union agency in garment producing countries. Inter alia, these studies have highlighted the presence of institutionalised labour control regimes that ensure the process of capital accumulation at specific nodes of the garment GPN through what Baglioni (2018: 111) refers to as “the interplay of labour exploitation and disciplining”. Whereas exploitation refers to the extraction of surplus value from ‘living labour’ in the labour process, disciplining refers to preventing, mitigating and repressing labour resistance (Baglioni 2018: 114). Even though studies on labour control in the garment GPN have focussed primarily on mechanisms of exploitation, these studies have also highlighted capital and state actors’ various disciplining mechanisms and practices undermining collective worker organisation in the garment industry (see, e.g., Anner 2015a; Ruwanpura 2015; Smith et al. 2018).

Against this backdrop, studies on labour agency in the garment GVC/GPN have tended to highlight the ‘constrained’ nature of the agency of workers and unions in garment producing countries (Coe and Jordhus-Lier 2011). Several studies have highlighted that workers and unions ‘at the bottom’ of the garment GVC lack domestic bargaining power “since they can easily be replaced and their wages are not expected to provide effective demand for the goods they produce” (Hauf 2017: 1001; see also Kumar 2014; Tsing 2009; Zajak et al. 2017). In face of these barriers for building domestic bargaining power, studies on labour agency in the garment GVC/GPN have repeatedly emphasised strategies of ‘up-scaling’ or ‘scale-jumping’ as central for workers in garment export countries to improve their own working and living conditions (Anner 2015b; Merk 2009; Wells 2009). In particular, these studies have stressed opportunities for local unions to ‘up-scale’ workplace conflicts through engaging with consumer campaigning networks or multi-stakeholder initiatives in the Global North. These actors can pressure brands and retailers to harness their lead firm power and to request improvements in working conditions from their suppliers (see, e.g., Anner 2011, 2015a; Armbruster-Sandoval 2005; Kumar 2014; Merk 2009).

However, accounts of successful ‘up-scaling’ of labour struggles by unions in garment producing countries have been accompanied by more critical writing, pointing out two important limits of cross-border campaigning strategies for achieving sustainable improvements of workers’ rights and conditions (Anner 2015b; Fink 2014; Fütterer and López Ayala 2018; López and Fütterer 2019; Zajak 2017): First, campaigning strategies are always reactive and tend to be effective only in severe cases of labour rights violations, in which the cost of reputational damage is higher for lead firms and suppliers than the cost of corrective action (Fütterer and López Ayala 2018: 21; Kumar 2019a: 347). Second, particularly when the leverage of geographically distant consumers and lead firms is not underpinned by strong local worker organisation, the success achieved through lead firms’ and consumers’ ‘top-down’ pressure tends to be rather short-lived—or in the words of Ross (2006: 78) “a temporary rescue, fragile and vulnerable to employers’ attacks”.

Existing research at the intersection of GPN analysis and labour geography clearly states that far-reaching and sustained improvements for workers in garment producing countries can only be achieved where strong workplace and industry-level unions exist. At the same time, we still lack a systematic understanding of the various factors and conditions that enable and constrain the building of strong unions and worker bargaining power in garment producing countries. First insights into the conditions that curb union building and collective worker organisation have been provided by studies of labour control regimes in garment producing countries (see e.g. Anner 2015a; Ruwanpura 2016; Wickramasingha and Coe 2021). However, the conditions, relationships and practices that enable garment workers and unions to shift the capital-labour power balance in favour of labour remain underexplored. This gap can be attributed inter alia to a general tendency of labour geography to produce rather descriptive accounts of workers’ and unions’ strategic (up-scaling) actions in the context of specific labour struggles. These accounts have however not systematically embedded workers’ and unions’ actions within broader structural conditions that shape, enable and constrain the agency of labour (c.f. Coe and Jordhus-Lier 2011: 213). In this light, recent studies have pointed out the need for a deeper exploration not only of how labour control regimes in garment producing countries shape the terrain for labour agency, but also of the structural effects that ‘Networks of Labour Activism’—such as networks with consumer groups and NGOs—have on unions’ practices and internal relations, thereby shaping unions’ capacities to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers (see, e.g., Hauf 2017; Zajak et al. 2017).

In this light, this study aims to contribute to a better understanding of the conditions that constrain and enable the building of strong local unions in garment producing countries. In view of this, the central research question guiding this study can be formulated as follows: Which conditions enable and constrain the capacities of local unions in garment producing countries to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state and thereby to bring about sustained improvements for workers in the garment industry?

To answer this question, I develop a practice-oriented, relational research approach to labour control and labour agency in GPNs that allows us to look beyond ‘isolated’ labour struggles and instead to analyse the agency of unions as embedded within broader networks of social, cultural and economic relations (c.f. Berndt and Fuchs, 2002; Coe and Jordhus-Lier 2010; Coe 2015). To this end, I link academic debates on labour control and labour agency in GPN and reconceptualise central conceptual frameworks from a relational, practice-oriented meta-theoretical perspective (c.f. Amin 2004; Jones and Murphy 2010, Martin 2010; Massey 1994). On the one hand, I build on work at the intersection of Labour Process Theory and GVC/GPN analysis (Newsome et al. 2015) as well as on studies of (local) labour control regimes in GPNs (Jonas 1996; Smith et al. 2018) to develop a practice-oriented, relational approach for analysing labour control regimes at specific nodes of a GPN as place-specific articulations of multiple processual relations of labour control stretching across various distances with localised labour processes. These networked processual relations are, in turn, constructed through intertwined exploiting and disciplining practices performed by a variety of capital and state actors.

On the other hand, I build on the analytical frameworks of ‘union power resources’ (Schmalz et al. 2018) and ‘Networks of Labour Activism’ (Zajak et al. 2017) to conceptualise the agency strategies of local unions at specific nodes of the GPN as emerging from the intersection of three relational ‘spaces of labour agency constructed by workers and unions themselves: (1) spaces of organising linking union organisers, workers and union members; (2) spaces of collaboration linking local unions to other external labour and non-labour actors in solidary ways; and (3) spaces of contestation constructed by unions around specific labour struggles through practices of targeting capital and state actors, on the one hand, and through engaging with allies—such as consumer networks or other labour actors—to plan and execute solidary action.

Figure 1.1 summarises the theoretical underpinnings and contributions of this book. It visualises the meta-theoretical perspective that guides this study, the two academic debates in which this study situates itself, and the specific theoretical frameworks that this study builds on. Marked in italics are the conceptual contributions of this book to debates on labour control and labour agency in GPN.

Fig. 1.1
An ellipse has 2 radial diagrams linked using a bidirectional arrow for academic debates. The diagram on the left is labor control in G P N and on the right is labor agency in G P N. 3 components of theoretical frameworks are present in both diagrams.

Source Author

Theoretical underpinnings and contributions of this book.

Following the relational, practice-oriented analytical approach of this book, two subordinate research questions can be derived from the central research question:

  1. 1.

    How do labour control regimes at specific nodes of the garment GPN—constituted through place-specific articulations of processual labour control with localised labour processes—shape and constrain the terrain for the agency of workers and unions in garment producing countries?

  2. 2.

    Which relationships and routine interactions enable unionists and workers in garment producing countries to develop strategic capacities and power resources that allow them to shift the capital-labour power balance in favour of workers?

I approach the formulated research questions through the lens of a qualitative, single embedded case study (Yin 2014) of the labour control regime and union agency in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. The justification for selecting Bangalore’s export-garment cluster as the case for this study is provided in the following section.

2 Empirical Case Study of This Book: The Export-garment Cluster in Bangalore, India

I have chosen the Bangalore export-garment cluster as an empirical case for this study for the following two reasons. First, the Bangalore export-garment cluster represents an important node in the garment GPN: Garments manufactured in Bangalore account for roughly 60% of India’s garment exports, with India itself being the fifth largest export country of garments on the global market (SLD and AFWA 2013: 18; WTO 2020: 119). Compared to other export-garment clusters in India, Bangalore has an exceptionally high presence of large tier one factories acting as strategic suppliers for US and EU fashion retail companies. For example, out of H&M’s 253 tier one supplier factories in India, 53 factories—or one-fifth of all factories—are located in and around Bangalore (H&M 2021). The strategic importance of the Bangalore cluster as a node in EU and US retailers’ production networks is also exemplified by the fact that many of these retailers maintain local production offices in Bangalore.

Second, compared to other garment production hubs in India, the Bangalore garment industry is characterised by a high level of union activity. Three politically independent, local grassroots unions have been organising workers in the Bangalore export-garment sector since 2006. Over the past 15 years, these unions have achieved important benefits for workers, such as significant minimum wage increases and—most recently—the first factory-level collective bargaining agreement in the Indian garment industry. Nevertheless, at the same time, unionisation rates remain low at around five per cent, reflecting the existence of a tight labour control regime posing severe challenges for collective worker organisation. Hence, the Bangalore export-garment cluster provides a rich empirical case to study the constraining and enabling conditions for the agency and bargaining power of local unions in garment producing countries.

3 Structure of This Book

Following this introduction, in Chapter 2, I position this study within geographical debates on labour in GPNs and provide an overview of existing analytical approaches and empirical studies. To this end, in Sect. 2.1, I first introduce the GCC, GVC and GPN frameworks and illustrate the evolution of labour as a study object within GVC/GPN analysis. After that, in Sect. 2.2, I outline the most important characteristics of two contrasting analytical approaches to labour in GVCs/GPNs—the ‘Decent Work’-approach and the ‘Marxist Political Economy’ approach—and place this study within the latter approach. Sections 2.3 and 2.4 then introduce the major research strands on labour control and labour agency in GVCs/GPNs and highlight the central contributions and shortcomings of existing studies. After the literature review, Chapter 3 introduces the core tenets of a practice-oriented, relational analytical perspective and develops heuristic frameworks for studying labour control regimes and union agency at specific nodes of a GPN from a practice-oriented, relational approach. Chapter 4 introduces the single embedded case study research design underpinning this study and discusses the different methods used for data collection and data analysis. Thereafter, Chapter 5 situates the empirical case of this study—the Bangalore export-garment cluster—within the garment GPN. In Sect. 5.1, I first lay out central characteristics of the garment GPN before describing the historical and geographical evolution of the Bangalore export-garment cluster in more detail in Sect. 5.2. After this introduction of the study area and case study, Chapters 6 and 7 finally present the empirical analysis of the labour control regime and unions’ agency strategies in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Chapter 6 analyses how the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment industry emerges from the place-specific articulations of different processual labour control relations stretching over various distances with the localised labour process. Chapter 7, in turn, scrutinises the agency strategies of three local garment unions active in the Bangalore export-garment cluster regarding their potential for building sustained bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state. After the empirical analysis, Chapter 8 concludes by answering the posed research questions and discussing the theoretical contributions of this study to current debates on labour control and agency in GPNs as well as for GPN analysis and practice-oriented research in economic geography more generally.