Last week I was lucky to spend two days in beautiful Tuscany at an excellent ESRC-sponsored seminar on employment regulation hosted by faculty from Newcastle (England), Strathclyde (Scotland), and Monash (Australia) universities. As the stimulating presentations unfolded, a pattern emerged: in cases where the geography of employment regulation matched the geography of the value chain, regulation was effective; otherwise it was not.
As Nigel Haworth described, in the New Zealand fishing industry, the state is a robust actor in regulating working conditions on fishing vessels because particularly valuable species of fish are only found in New Zealand waters. So demand for those fish can only be filled by work that takes place there. In contrast, New Zealand recently weakened labor laws for workers in the movie industry because Warner Bros could have filmed “The Hobbit” somewhere else. Regional approaches to governing Italian workplaces match the vibrant pockets of Italian industrial districts (Luigi Burroni), whereas unions in Sierra Leone struggle to represent the large numbers of informal sector workers (John Stirling). And local and national attempts to create safer garment workplaces in Bangladesh and elsewhere have failed because of the ease of shifting production to new locations. So in this case, international standards are needed (Janice Bellace).
Of course I’m not the first to think of these linkages. In 1909, John R. Commons, the father of American industrial relations, published a once-famous article, “American Shoemakers, 1648-1895: A Sketch of Industrial Evolution.” Commons illustrated how workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions matched the evolution of the shoemaking production process and the nature of the “competitive menace.” When shoemakers were skilled craftsmen largely working as individuals, they formed guilds to prevent unskilled, substandard shoemakers from undermining their standards. When shoemaking became more of a job, workers formed unions, first on a local basis. And as the competitive menace expanded with the extension of the production and distributions systems, local unions joined to become national in scope, and they lobbied for protections in international markets.
Putting all of this together, we can think of the geography of the value chain as ranging from atomistic to global:
And then we must note that effective regulation typically occurs when the geography of the value chain is in the middle range (local and national systems)--this is the “sweet spot” of effective regulation and governance. For value chains that are more atomistic or more global, it is often difficult to establish and enforce labor standards and to give workers effective voice.
If this analysis is right, it should be particularly alarming because trends in work point toward both ends of the geography of the value chain as increasingly important, not the middle. The effects of globalization on manufacturing over the past few decades is a well-known story, but services, too, are increasingly becoming globalized—for example, through outsourcing to lower cost areas, such as has happened with legal research and Catholic prayer fulfillment. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in addition to the millions in developing countries who work in informal sectors, there are many atomistic areas on the rise in developed countries, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, and household-based workers such as home health aides.
These are not new issues (see Commons), and they are not easy issues. But they are issues of critical importance. The geography of the value chain is dynamic in today’s organizations and economies. The regulation of work cannot continue to only hit the sweet spot of subnational and national value chains. We need to continue to figure out how to design strategies for governing work—whether privately crafted through unions and other institutions, or publicly crafted through government regulation—that match the dynamism of the geography of the value chain across its full spectrum. Only then will work really work for all.