Title (eng)

Worker power, state-labour relations and worker identities: Re-conceptualising social upgrading in global value chains


Kristoffer Marslev   Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna

Cornelia Staritz   Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna

Gale Raj-Reichert   Bard College Berlin


Institut für Internationale Entwicklung (IE)


Poor working conditions are widespread in global value chains (GVCs). In GVC research, the concept of social upgrading aims to understand how working conditions may improve focusing on lead firm strategies and inter-firm governance in GVCs, often seeing social upgrading as a result of economic upgrading by supplier firms. Building on work criticizing this understanding of social upgrading, we re-conceptualise social upgrading through the lens of worker power exercised at the intersection of transnational relations on a vertical dimension and local relations on a horizontal dimension. We focus in particular on the embeddedness of worker power within state-labour relations and the intersectionality of worker identities along the horizontal dimension to explain why social up- and downgrading occurs in GVCs. Case study analyses of the apparel sectors in Cambodia and Vietnam employ this re-conceptualization. In both cases, worker power expressed in strike action was a key causal driver of social upgrading; and in both, the outcomes were critically shaped by shifting state-labour relations and intersections of class and worker identities linked to gender, household and community relations.

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global value chain, social upgrading, worker power, state, intersectionality, apparel, Cambodia, Vietnam

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