Corporate purchasing practices in global production networks: A socially contested terrain

Stephanie Barrientos, 2013

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Civil society organisations are employing both adversarial and collaborative strategies to challenge purchasing practices of large corporations as a cause of poor employment conditions for a largely female workforce. This paper draws on analysis of global production networks, labour agency and gender to examine linkages and tensions at the intersection between commercial dynamics of dominant firms and their societal embeddedness in diverse localities of consumption and production. It contrasts two campaigns, one adversarial, the other collaborative, on corporate purchasing practices pursued by smaller, women-oriented NGOs to improve working conditions of a feminised labour force in fruit and garment GPNs. It analyses how the positioning of lead firms within GPNs affects their engagement with social actors. Brand exposure to reputational risk allows civil society organisations to exploit leverage points opened up at different GPN nodes to pressure for commercial change. It argues this is not coincidental. It often plays out within a gender contested terrain where women workers bear the brunt of adverse purchasing practices. But GPNs also open up new channels for women’s voice and organisation. The paper considers the extent to which these forms of civil society engagement reflect a fundamental challenge to GPNs, or new forms of incorporation by firms adapting to their social critics. It assesses this in light of a process of gender transformation within global markets, where women now participate as more informed workers, consumers and activists.


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