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Beyond the Boycott

Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism

Gay W. Seidman

Publication Year: 2007

As the world economy becomes increasingly integrated, companies can shift production to wherever wages are lowest and unions weakest. How can workers defend their rights in an era of mobile capital? With national governments forced to compete for foreign investment by rolling back legal protections for workers, fair trade advocates are enlisting consumers to put market pressure on companies to treat their workers fairly. In Beyond the Boycott, sociologist Gay Seidman asks whether this non-governmental approach can reverse the “race to the bottom” in global labor standards. Beyond the Boycott examines three campaigns in which activists successfully used the threat of a consumer boycott to pressure companies to accept voluntary codes of conduct and independent monitoring of  work sites. The voluntary Sullivan Code required American corporations operating in apartheid-era South Africa to improve treatment of their workers;  in India, the Rugmark inspection team provides ‘social labels’ for  handknotted carpets made without child labor; and in Guatemala,  COVERCO monitors conditions in factories producing clothing under contract for major American brands. Seidman compares these cases to explore the ingredients of successful campaigns, as well as the inherent limitations facing voluntary monitoring schemes. Despite activists’ emphasis on educating individual consumers to support ethical companies, Seidman finds that, in practice, they have been most successful when they mobilized institutions—such as universities, churches, and shareholder organizations. Moreover, although activists tend to dismiss states’ capabilities, all three cases involved governmental threats of trade sanctions against companies and countries with poor labor records. Finally, Seidman  points to an intractable difficulty of independent workplace monitoring: since consumers rarely distinguish between monitoring schemes and labels, companies can hand pick monitoring organizations, selecting those with the lowest standards for working conditions and the least aggressive inspections. Transnational consumer movements can increase the bargaining power of the global workforce, Seidman argues, but they cannot replace national governments or local campaigns to expand the meaning of citizenship. As trade and capital move across borders in growing volume and with greater speed, civil society and human rights movements are also becoming more global. Highly original and thought-provoking, Beyond the Boycott vividly depicts the contemporary movement to humanize globalization—its present and its possible future.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: American Sociological Association Rose Series

TItle Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-x


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pp. xi-xii

About the Author

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xvi

Like most comparative projects, this one took me to places to which I could not have traveled on my own. Without the generous help of Padma Priyadarshini and her family, I could not have conducted research in India. Padma’s analytic and practical skills allowed me to negotiate a reality I could never...

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1. Citizens, Markets, and Transnational Labor Activism

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pp. 1-14

The press release called it the dawn of a new era: after years of difficult negotiations, multinational corporations, labor activists, and human rights groups had agreed “to work together as equal partners to make significant improvements in labor conditions in garment factories” around the...

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2. Labor Rights as Human Rights: Regulation in the Context of "Thinned" National State

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pp. 15-46

What does it mean to redefine labor rights as human rights? Transnational campaigns often try to mobilize global support by invoking universal standards rather than locally enforced labor law. But in the process, labor activists often abandon older labor strategies, which tended to...

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3. Monitoring Multinationals: Lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Era

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pp. 47-71

One of the most frequently cited examples of transnational corporate monitoring involves labor standards only tangentially: the nearly twenty-year effort to improve the “corporate citizenship” of American companies in South Africa...

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4. Social Labels, Child Labor, and Monitoring in the Indian Carpet Industry

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pp. 72-101

The conditions in which India’s child carpet weavers work are heartrending: emaciated young boys sit before massive looms in dark, dusty weaving sheds, their legs dangling off wooden planks into pits dug into dirt floors, working as...

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5. Constructing a Culture of Compliance in Guatemala

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pp. 102-131

The word “sweatshop” has long evoked the garment industry: poor young women bent over sewing machines in dimly lit, badly ventilated rooms, working long hours for pitiful wages. Sadly, that image is not outdated. Exposés from Los...

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6. Citizenship at Work

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pp. 132-144

This study began with some rather straightforward questions. What are the characteristics of successful consumer-based campaigns? How have transnational activists managed to persuade corporations to accede to the independent monitoring of workplace codes of conduct, and what has been...


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pp. 145-146


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pp. 147-168


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pp. 169-176

E-ISBN-13: 9781610444880
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871547613
Print-ISBN-10: 0871547619

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: American Sociological Association Rose Series
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OCLC Number: 654838138
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Beyond the Boycott

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social responsibility of business -- Developing countries -- Case studies.
  • International business enterprises -- Developing countries -- Management -- Case studies.
  • Labor movement -- Developing countries -- Case studies.
  • Human rights monitoring -- Developing countries -- Case studies.
  • Employee rights -- Developing countries -- Case studies.
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