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Shareen Hertel, Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists.

Shareen Hertel, Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2006)

As PROCESSES OF economic globalization continue to raise concerns about the 'race to the bottom' in labour standards in both the North and South, international institutions such as the United Nations and International Labour Organization, as well as many labour rights NGOS, have identified the need to promote basic rights at work as a key challenge for the 21st century, and have sought to reframe labour rights as fundamental human rights. In this context, new strategies to organize for better standards have emerged in both the North and South, as unions, NGOS, community-based organizations, and other social movements seek to develop and advance international labour rights.

In this context, campaigns such as the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s emerged out of initiatives based in the North. By using a combination of strategies, including public-awareness tactics, government lobbying, and consumer boycotts, Northern activists have brought pressure to bear on large and powerful transnational corporations (TNCS) regarding labour standards abuses in their supply chains located in the South. Yet, as Shareen Hertel demonstrates in Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists, campaigns emerging from the North may be constructed in terms that fail to effectively engage with the principles and priorities of activists in the Southern economies they seek to transform. Thus, activists in the South are often faced with not only labour rights abuses by TNCS, but also the challenge of re-framing campaigns emerging from the North in order to construct meaningful social and economic transformation. With the globalization of economic production as a backdrop, Unexpected Power is a study of the processes of contestation and change within campaigns designed to promote international labour rights. Focusing on two recent initiatives--a campaign against child labour in Bangladesh and a campaign against workplace-based pregnancy screening in Mexico--Hertel documents the efforts of activists in the South as they transform these Northern-initiated campaigns by integrating local principles and priorities.

In the early 1990s, activists and policymakers in the United States launched a campaign against child labour in Bangladesh. The campaign emerged in response to widespread reports of the use of child labour in the export-oriented garment industry that had become central to the Bangladeshi economy, us legislators threatened to enact formal trade sanctions against garment imports from Bangladesh. us-based NGOS and labour organizations launched campaigns to raise public awareness about goods produced with child labour, while consumer groups planned boycotts against such goods. Organized from the perspective of Northern consumers, activists, and policymakers, this campaign sought to put an end to the employment of children in Bangladesh's garment factories. Yet this campaign was resisted by activists in Bangladesh, who argued that the narrow focus on getting children out of factories would simply lead to their engagement with other much more harmful forms of subsistence, such as child prostitution, and would in no way address the root causes that pushed children into wage labour. These activists pressured for a much wider definition of child rights, specifically re-framing the campaign around issues related to access to education and basic income. As result of this process of contestation, the focus of the initial child labour campaign indeed expanded. As Hertel documents, the efforts of Bangladeshi activists shifted the framing of the campaign away from minimum age of employment towards a focus on fundamental economic rights, prompted the development of a more expansive conceptualization of children's rights in international policy circles, and paved the way for the development of ILO Convention 182 on The Worst Form of Child Labour.

In 1995, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO, launched a campaign against pregnancy screening that was taking place in the manufacturing plants along the Mexico-U.S. border. The campaign was initiated in response to the practice of employers either firing or refusing to hire pregnant women. This is a practice common in the border industries as a means to avoid payment of the three months of maternity leave required by Mexican labour law. After gathering testimony from hundreds of women affected by this practice, Human Rights Watch filed a complaint against Mexico under the labour standards side agreement of NAFTA. Shortly after, women's rights activists in Mexico City launched their own campaign against pregnancy screening. While the primary focus of the two campaigns was the same, Mexico City activists, like the activists in Bangladesh, constructed their campaign in much broader terms. First, they focused not only on women in the border region, but all those who were facing pregnancy screening from their employers. Second, they framed their campaign not simply in terms of discrimination in employment, but sought to connect employment/economic rights to reproductive rights, and to direct attention to society's responsibility for human reproduction. Unlike the child labour campaign, however, Mexican activists did not seek to 'block' the HRW strategy; rather, these two campaigns proceeded alongside one another, with Mexican activists taking advantage of the political space opened by the HRW campaign and working at the grassroots, local level to expand the normative frame and action strategy. In terms of outcomes, while the HRW complaint to the NAFTA labour standards accord produced ministerial consultations and outreach sessions, these had little concrete impact at the workplace level. As for the campaign launched by Mexican activists, it succeeded in expanding the normative frame from one of employment discrimination to one of women's economic and reproductive rights. Yet, practices of pregnancy screening continue. Thus, according to Hertel, the legacy of these campaigns is still debated. Regardless, this case provides another example of the ways in which the actions of activists in the South may contribute to an expansion of the normative frame and strategic practices of campaigns originating from the North.

In addition to describing these campaigns, Hertel seeks to also develop new concepts aimed at explaining how campaigns are transformed through the framing strategies of movement activists. For example, she introduces the concept of 'blocking' to explain the ways Bangladeshi activists contested the anti-child labour frame of us campaigners. And she describes the Mexican activists' strategy of broadening the frame of the HRW campaign as involving 'backdoor moves.' Explanation is provided throughout the text as to how these are new ways of thinking about the construction of social movement campaigns. Yet, it is in this theoretical intervention that the book shows its limitations, as these concepts fail to add theoretical clarity, and simply end up sounding like academic jargon. Nonetheless, with a research methodology well-grounded in a large number of interviews with campaign activists, the text clearly delivers on its primary point: that challenges to corporate globalization will be most effectively constructed when they emerge from the grassroots in the locales where they are meant to directly impact. It is a resource that will be of great interest to those teaching and conducting research in the areas of both social movements and international labour rights.

The struggle to advance international labour rights has emerged as a key site of transnational activist organizing in the contemporary global economy. Campaigns and efforts to improve and promote labour rights like those described in this book illustrate the ways in which transnationalism 'from below' has emerged to counter the power of TNCS and corporate-led globalization. By forcefully pointing to the ways in which activists in the South have transformed these campaigns, challenging not only the TNCS, but also the terms through which campaigns are constructed in the North, Unexpected Power provides an important contribution to our understandings of the true dynamics of grassroots organizing in the global economy.


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Author:Thomas, Mark
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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