Corporate Social Responsibility in the Electronics Manufacturing Industry: the Implications of ‘Soft Governance’ for Labor Standards

How do transnational corporate social responsibility standards influence and shape labor conditions in the electronics manufacturing industry in China and Taiwan?

Project Summary

This project asks how the actors and tools of global governance converge (or diverge) to regulate labor conditions in the electronics manufacturing industry in China and Taiwan. The contemporary configuration of transnational capitalism into complex supply chains – with branding, financial services and intellectual property managed in the ‘North’ while manufacturing and assembly is performed in the ‘South’ – is a much analyzed characteristic of our global era. In response to image-damaging anti-sweatshop campaigns, large brand names have taken up the call for ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) by creating industry-wide ‘corporate codes of conduct’ (CCC), intended to serve as minimum standards for labor and environmental rights throughout the production chain.

The rise of these forms of ‘soft law’ have led many to conclude that we are entering a new era of transnational governance in which soft, private and/or ‘flexible’ norms will increasingly displace ‘hard’ law and regulation. Through discourse analysis, interviews and ethnographic observation in one key transnational industry, electronics manufacturing, this project will document the ways in which transnational CSR labor standards are ‘localised’ at the various places where they are to be applied, and the variations in meaning and effects that arise from these localizing practices.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

In this research project, we have aimed to map the network of actors and tools involved in defining and resolving an emerging social problem: the problem of labor standards in the electronics industry in China and Taiwan. Our central research question was: how do public and private players active in the definition and resolution of this problem cooperate and/or compete, and what effects does this have on labor standards in this sector?

Our research identifies a “governance arena” structured by competition between key players (governments, corporations and NGOs) to occupy the moral high ground. This governance arena is not functionally integrated, as hypothesized by Abbott & Snidal’s (2009) model of the “governance triangle”. Rather, it is characterized by a blend of competitive and cooperative activities between key plays seeking reputational, social and economic capital in this “market for virtue” (Vogel 2005). Furthermore, though dynamic and frequently well intentioned, the many activities that this competition for reputation produces do not significantly affect working conditions in the electronics sector, nor do they reliably provide Chinese workers with the tools necessary to assert their own rights. They do, however, produce other effects, such as providing new management tools for brands to exert pressure on their suppliers and propagating notions of personal responsibility and development through “capacity building” programs in the area of workers’ rights. They also provide a new arena for public debate on the question of labor standards in this industry, incorporating a broad range of actors and raising important new challenges.

Working Paper

Marginalizing the law: Corporate social responsibility, worker hotlines and the shifting grounds of rights consciousness in contemporary China

This book concerns the increasing centrality of law and legal action in popular struggles for social justice in contemporary China. Through the various examples examined by the contributors, it demonstrates that this increasing discursive centrality is accompanied by increasing social fragmentation, diversification and contestation, with different collectivities appropriating the rhetoric and mechanics of the law for different purposes. In our chapter, we would like to complicate this picture one step further. We argue that transnational corporate discourse and practice must be more clearly factored into our understanding of Chinese approaches to law and social justice, by following the forms of “legal transplant” (Lin 2009) currently taking place within global supply chains. When these influences are taken into account, we suggest, a contrary movement can be identified, away from the law and imaginaries of the public good, and towards an “ethics” of “responsibility” and “personal development”.

Research Team

Ellen Hertz
University of Neuchâtel

Marylène Lieber
Principal Member
University of Neuchâtel

Cornelia Pillard
Associated Member
Georgetown University


Anne Posthuma
Associated Member
International Labour Organisation

David Seligson
Associated Member
International Labour Organisation

Martin Ramstedt
Associated Member
Faculdade Max Planck

Hong-zen Wang
Associated Member
National Sun Yat-Sen University






Policy domains


Host Institution