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UA-Ruhr GC: Report from the First Field Research Period of the UAR GC Research Project on the Garment Industry

Johannes Norpoth shares his impressions of the field research trip to Bangladesh and Cambodia, conducted in November and December 2015 together with Christian Scheper from Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in the context of the interdisciplinary, multi-university research project on "Political Authority in Transnational Governance Arrangements" which is funded by the Mercator Research Center Ruhr (MERCUR).

The overall objective of the project is to discern the interplay between public and private forms of regulation of labour, social, and environmental standards in the apparel and textile industry both from a (socio-)legal, and political science perspective. How relevant stakeholders perceive and act within this interplay of state-based and private regulation in different country contexts is the core empirical question of the project. In this regard, Bangladesh and Cambodia serve as interesting case studies. In both countries, an export-oriented garment sector is, and has been, a major driver of economic growth. Additionally, in both countries have private forms of regulation interact with state-based regulation. At the same time, both countries can be distinguished by a number of factors. In Cambodia, the interplay between state and private forms of regulation is influenced by a country-wide inspection programme for labour standards, which is coordinated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and has been established since 2001. In contrast, different forms of regulation, including private and state-based forms, have recently emerged in Bangladesh as a response to the Rana Plaza disaster – a collapse of a multi-story building, housing garment factories, causing more than 1,100 deaths. Moreover, trade unions tend to be a politically relevant factor in Cambodia, whereas in Bangladesh, they have played only a minimal role due to the long-standing repression of unions. Hence, both countries exhibit similar, but distinguishable features that are likely to influence the interplay of public and private regulation.

Aims of the Field Research

The field research trip to Bangladesh and Cambodia in November and December of last year was the first of two planned visits. This first round of interviews with experts from different stakeholder groups aimed at deepening the general understanding of the relevant context of transnational regulation of labour, social, and environmental standards in both countries. Additionally, we sought to derive first views of how different relevant actors perceive state-based and private forms of regulation, and how they interact with these forms of regulation.

Experiences in Bangladesh

In the case of Bangladesh, the trip took place during a tense security situation in the country. Supposed terrorist attacks on foreigners in the months before the trip lead to a strict security protocol for most representatives of international organizations. In our case, this became most noticeable through the installation of a metal detector at the entrance of our hotel. Moreover, we had to change the locations of interviews with workers and union representatives in order to avoid supposedly less safe areas in the towns surrounding Dhaka, the busy and buzzing capitol of Bangladesh. The trip to Dhaka proved to be highly productive with 26 interviews conducted in just 15 days. This turned out to be a major challenge, not the least due to the immense and chaotic traffic in the city. The stakeholders we interviewed included ILO representatives, workers, trade union representatives, international brands and retailers, civil society organizations, lawyers, legal aid service organizations, experts from academia, and public human rights bodies. Thanks to the help of our local assistant, Moynul Haque, Assistant Professor at Jagganath University, Dhaka, some particularly interesting interview partners could be added to the initial list. For the second trip, we seek to add state officials and representatives of local manufacturing enterprises to the list of stakeholders based on the contacts we were able to make this time.
Interview Bangladesh

Picture with interviewee from a Bangladeshi trade union (picture: private).

Experiences in Cambodia

The ensuing stay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, turned out to be more relaxed, in particular because the distances traveled to interviewees took less than 30 minutes, compared to more than two hours in Dhaka. In terms of different relevant institutions in the two countries, the Arbitration Council in Cambodia must be noted as a remarkable feature. This tripartite institution was established in 2003 by Cambodian law and has apparently become a well-respected and trusted dispute settlement mechanism for collective labour disputes in the country, partly substituting lengthy proceedings in front of the courts. A country-wide access to a trusted institution for the settlement of labour disputes still seems to be missing in the context of Bangladesh.
Interview Cambodia
Picture with a Cambodian garment manufacturer and his wife (photo: private).


Overall, the perceptions and information gathered during this first field research phase are highly valuable for our current work. Further interviews with European stakeholders and experts, as well as a second research period in Bangladesh and Cambodia at the end of 2016 will complement the data gathered so far, and deepen the level of inquiry on specific aspects. The insights gained in our first research period show great promise for interesting and insightful interviews in the future.

NorpothJohannes Norpoth, LL.M.
Research Fellow
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