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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Regulation for the Rest of Us? Global Social Activism, Corporate Citizenship, and the Disappearance of the Political


In the context of globalization, transnational social regulation is increasingly the product of private (as opposed to public) interventions into the sphere of global trade. In recognition of the widespread failure of corporations to sufficiently address the socio-economic externalities borne by workers (inadequate wages, poor working conditions, forced overtime, child labor, and lack of the right to free association), various non-governmental organizations have begun to design and implement systems of rules intended to influence corporations and bring to an end a transnational "race to the bottom." Drawing on publicly available materials, interviews, and fieldwork in Southeast Asia, I propose that what matters as much as improvements to life on the factory floor are "spillover" effects whose force extend beyond building walls into the broader society of the host country. I question whether consumer behavior alone can create the conditions in which workers will be free to exercise their rights as guaranteed by both domestic law and International Labor Organization conventions. I conclude that what is needed is greater interaction between global civil society and trade unions. For the moment, the basis for effective labor law—and regulation more generally—lies within states. Activists and civil society should focus on improving legal, political, and social conditions for workers in the host countries, rather than trying to affect corporate behavior through consumer pressure.

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