Contract Labour: The ‘Achilles Heel’ of Corporate Codes in Commercial Value Chains


  • Stephanie Barrientos

    1. lectures at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; e-mail: She has researched and published widely on gender, global production, employment, migrant labour, decent work, international labour standards, corporate social responsibility, fair trade, and ethical trade. She co-ordinated the UK Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Impact Assessment (2003–06). She has advised a number of organizations including DFID, ILO, UNIDO, Christian Aid, Oxfam and ActionAid.
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Codes of labour practice implemented by corporate buyers in their global production networks are one dimension of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Research indicates the benefits of codes for workers are limited and they fail to reach the most vulnerable workers, particularly those employed by labour contractors who face the worst employment conditions. This contribution argues that the commercial dynamics of global production networks provides an opening for civil society organizations to pressure for codes, but simultaneously drives the use of a vulnerable and insecure workforce that is the ‘Achilles Heel’ of codes. Whilst codes have a role to play, inherent tensions underpinned by a commercial logic mean they should only ever be viewed as one strand in broader strategies that address the rights of the most vulnerable workers in global production.