Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures

Many in Western countries think of emerging economies such as China and India as places with weak labour standards where workers are being exploited. This ignores changes on the ground in many ‘rising powers’ countries, such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil, which have seen systematic reforms in labour laws and codes as well as an emergence of voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards over the past decade.

A workshop held in Cambridge at 5-6 September 2016 brought together researchers from two projects under the ‘Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures’ programme with practitioners and experts to discuss these trends. Stimulating discussions over the two days not only drew on diverse perspectives across academic disciplines but also allowed policy-oriented exchange between academia and practice.

To investigate the complex changes in labour regulation and CSR in the rising powers, the two projects combine very different disciplinary and methodological approaches. From a law and economics perspective, researchers on the ‘Law Development and Finance’ project at the University of Cambridge explore trends in public labour regulation based on the Centre for Business Research (CBR) Labour Regulation Index, a unique quantitative dataset that documents labour laws in 117 countries over the period 1970 to 2013. The data first of all shows that labour regulation in rising powers is becoming increasingly strict. Another finding that may be surprising for some is that stronger regulation does not necessarily lead to losses in employment and productivity, but can improve economic performance.

Coinciding with these reforms in public regulation, the project on ‘Labour Standards and Global Production Networks’ at the University of Manchester finds an emergence of voluntary standards and local norms around CSR in China, India, South Africa and Brazil. Researchers from Manchester draw on qualitative methods and case study analysis to understand how these local CSR standards interact with state regulation and with global labour standards set by international organisations and Western multinational companies. Discussions during the workshop highlighted the very different understandings of CSR across rising power countries. They also underlined the need to take into account the different ways in which CSR interacts with public regulation in these countries.

Following from the lively exchange around labour reforms, academic researchers and practitioners arrived at the question: How can we bridge the gap between academia and practice better and more often? One key lesson was that closer academia-policy interaction could result in better ‘co-production’ of research, and in ways that might have greater impact. Discussions revealed, however, some challenges around the current debate on the wider impact of academic research. For instance, often practical impact is difficult to measure for a single researcher or piece of work, but becomes clearer for an entire body of literature that changes thinking and policy-making. Another challenge is that communication channels may not be conducive to academic research informing policy, e.g. if academic papers only draw conclusions for the literature, or if media interviews are cut too short to allow a researcher to communicate a differentiated idea. Some of the ideas for moving forward were to highlight policy conclusions also in academic journals and to foster links between media and academics that have become weaker over the past years.

For more details, please refer to the publications from the two projects: