IEE Newsletter No. 27

UA Ruhr GC: More than 2 Years of Interdisciplinary Engagement with the Law and Politics of Transnational Governance Arrangements

Johannes Norpoth looks back on the activities of the MERCUR project.

At the end of 2017 the interdisciplinary research project on “Political Authority in Transnational Governance Arrangements: Regulation through Public and Private Labour, Social and Environmental Standards in the Asian Textile and Apparel Industry”, funded by the Mercator Research Center Ruhr (MERCUR) came to a close. The project brought together researchers from political science from the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the University of Duisburg-Essen and from legal science from the IEE and the faculty of law of the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) on the topic of regulating global supply chains with a focus on transnational governance arrangements in Bangladesh and Cambodia. In addition, the project initiated a vivid exchange of a wider group of researchers through a series of five workshops, involving sociologists, labour law specialists and political scientists, working on individual research proposals linked to the topic of “Practices of Polycentric Governance and the Transformation of Power”.

Research Interests

A first point of departure of the project has been that the dynamics of global supply chains have produced governance gaps on labour, social and environmental issues, which have increasingly been addressed by transnational regulation relying on the authority of private entities, especially business enterprises. Such private forms of regulation, often based on contractual arrangements, intermesh in various ways with different forms of public regulation, including national and public international law. Against this backdrop, the project sought to map existing forms of interaction of public and private regulation with regard to the apparel and textile industry in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Given that most of these forms of regulation emanate from the Global North or international institutions, and that private regulation is linked to the market power Western buyer companies hold over their suppliers in the Global South, the project devoted particular attention to aspects of legitimacy and accountability of these transnational forms of regulation.

Bangladesh and Cambodia as Case Studies

Bangladesh and Cambodia formed interesting case studies for this type of study. In Bangladesh, several public and private instruments had been adopted in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building – a building that housed several garment factories. Among these transnational instruments, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, as a novel legally binding contract between Western brands and retailers and trade unions, was of particular interest to the project. With regard to Cambodia, the project was primarily interested in the interaction of public and private regulatory elements in the prominent Better Factories Cambodia programme and the Arbitration Council as a tripartite body for the resolution of collective labour disputes.

Expert Interviews in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Europe

Interview BangladeshIn the course of the project, the research team conducted 111 interviews with experts involved in different functions with the regulatory instruments during two research stays in each case study country, as well as in Europe. In addition, one focus group discussion with workers was conducted in each case study country. Interview Cambodia

Moreover, two master students of the Master in Development Management (MADM) at the IEE wrote their theses in the context of the project and conducted further interviews as part of their field work.

(Pictures on the left and right above were taken during the research visits to Bangladesh and Cambodia in 2015. They show project researchers Christian Scheper and Johannes Norpoth with interview partners. On the left with a union representative in Bangladesh, on the right with a garment manufacturer in Cambodia, photos: private)

General Findings

The gathered interview data forms the basis for several contributions from the project to the academic debates on the role of private authority in global governance, transnational regulation and global supply chains, and concepts of transnational legal ordering. While some papers are already published, other contributions are still in preparation. As one of the core findings, the research contributions confirm a strong influence of transnational governance arrangements on labour, social and environmental standards in production countries of global supply chains. However, the conducive role of private regulation in improving labour standards in supplier factories depends on the economic leverage of the Western buyer companies over their suppliers, either used individually or collectively as in novel regulatory models, such as the Accord. A closer look at the Accord reveals that, while such regulatory experiments with making transnational labour regulation legally binding for buyer companies are useful, one needs to qualify what such legal force can actually mean in practice. Although the Accord adds an element of legal accountability to private regulation, it remains premised on top-down economic pressure in supply chain relations, rather raising legitimacy concerns from suppliers than establishing legal institutions for supply chain relations that are perceived as just by all actors. Overall, the research contributions find numerous reflections of political contestation in the context of the transnational governance arrangements. Within these governance arrangements law often played an ambivalent role, used either as a tool to ensure the observance of labour, social and environmental standards in practice or as a means to resist further change.

Further Activities

The research project has established a deep interdisciplinary exchange between the research teams at the INEF and the IEE that is going to continue through the preparation of joint papers and follow-up research proposals. In addition, the academic engagement with the apparel and textile supply chain has led the IEE, represented by IEE Director Markus Kaltenborn, to become an advisory member of the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, a multi-stakeholder platform initiated by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. In its capacity as an advisory member to the Partnership, the IEE will remain involved in the topics touched by this research project.

NorpothJohannes Norpoth
Research Fellow
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Phone: +49 (0)234 / 32-19025
Fax: +49 (0)234 / 32-14294

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