Wednesday 10 August 2016

Why do South African fruit workers feel left behind in global production networks?

By Matthew Alford
Image by Mister GC,

In a recent article in Geoforum, Matthew Alford explains how the concept of trans-scalar embeddedness helps to understand the governance deficit around working conditions in the South African fruit sector.

On face value, the South African workers who harvest fruit for UK supermarkets should be happy with their jobs: They enjoy a local minimum wage and their employers adhere to the Ethical Trading Initiative that sets out comprehensive rules to ensure good working conditions. Yet, in 2012 workers took to the streets demanding higher wages. Actions of largely unorganised casual workers on a handful of farms escalated across the whole Western Cape region. Why did this happen even though workers were apparently protected by both national and global labour regimes?

The issue of working conditions in global production arrangements led by large multinational brands has received increasing public attention over the past decades, for example in debates around sweat shops in developing countries. The literature on global production networks grasps this from an academic perspective and highlights the influence of multinational lead firms on working conditions in their supplier firms around the world. For example, commercial pressure to reduce costs can have a negative effect on wages and working conditions. Research on initiatives to improve working conditions in global production networks (GPNs) has mostly focused on codes of conduct adopted by multinationals, the roles of NGOs or on multi-stakeholder initiatives. In contrast the role of state regulation, e.g. through labour laws in producing countries, has received only little attention by GPN scholars. This is surprising given that an emerging ‘regulatory renaissance’ literature highlights a renewed role for governments in regulating labour in global production, often complementing private codes of conduct.

I argue that the concept of trans-scalar embeddedness is helpful to understand the interactions of different kinds of labour standards within global production networks and their impact on workers. In the context of global production, initiatives to improve working conditions at local, national and global scales often influence each other. This means that national labour laws in a producing country need to be seen in the context of multinationals’ sourcing practices and codes of conduct and of global standards such as the Ethical Trading Initiative or ILO standards. In addition, the role of civil society at local, national and global levels needs to be taken into account. Similarly, the effectiveness of global initiatives is likely to depend on the kind of labour regulation in place in a producing country.

The South African fruit sector illustrates how important it is to consider the ways in which sourcing practices and private standards demanded by multinational buyers interact with national labour regulation. Looking at the trans-scalar embeddedness of labour governance in the sector helps to understand why the most vulnerable workers are losing out. In order to remain competitive under commercial pressures, many South African farms producing fruit for UK supermarkets rely heavily on seasonal workers. These seasonal workers are usually paid the legal minimum wage, which should in theory ensure fair remuneration. However, many workers report that the minimum wage is set so low that they are not able to make a living. Trade unions contribute little to addressing the issue because participation in unions is generally low among farm workers due to historical reasons, with seasonal workers facing additional challenges to organise due to the unsteady nature of their work. Overall, even though a legal minimum wage is in place and is widely implemented, the most precarious seasonal workers are insufficiently protected by national labour regulation.

But what about efforts by UK supermarkets, who claim to be protecting workers’ rights in their supply chain by participating in the Ethical Trading Initiative? The ETI includes a comprehensive set of requirements around working conditions, but does not manage to address the issue of low pay for seasonal workers either. This is because ETI principles state that a supplier needs to comply with national legislation on wages and supermarkets argue that they do not have the legitimacy to interfere with how wages are set in foreign countries. As a result, neither national laws nor private standards by buyers in the global production network served to protect the most vulnerable seasonal workers who went on strike in 2012/13.

Summing up, the South African case shows that trans-scalar interactions between labour regimes are crucial to understand governance deficits in global production networks. For instance, international buyers’ efforts to ensure workers are paid according to local legislation were of little benefit for workers as long as the local minimum wage was set too low. Hence, even though farms were compliant with both the South African minimum wage and the requirements of the Ethical Trading Initiative, seasonal workers felt left behind. Beyond South Africa, such interactions between different kinds of labour regimes at local, national and global scales need to receive more attention by researchers aiming to understand the situation of workers in global production.

For further details, see:

Alford, M. (2016) Trans-scalar embeddedness and governance deficits in global production networks: Crisis in South African fruit, Geoforum, 75, October 2016, pp. 52–63. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2016.07.005