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Global production networks under spotlight

The tensions caused by global production networks and their impact on labour standards come under the gaze of two papers recently co-authored by Dr Matthew Alford, Lecturer at Alliance MBS.

The focus of both papers is the South African fruit industry which has been through a period of major upheaval in recent years with producers subject to increasingly stringent global supermarket pressure to provide quality standards at low cost.

At the same time the sector has undergone significant transformation at the national level through a combination of economic liberalisation and integration into value chains, alongside strengthening post-apartheid employment legislation aimed at improving labour conditions.


Dr Alford says these combined changes have contributed to a reduction in the number of on-farm permanent workers and increasing use of precarious off-farm and migrant workers which has fuelled social conflicts between workers. “Pressures came to a head in the 2012 when fruit workers in the Western Cape rose up, blocking key arterial routes for fruit exports to overseas supermarkets, and demanded a living wage.”

The first paper, which he co-authors with Professor Stephanie Barrientos from the Global Development Institute at The University of Manchester, examines the impact of the crisis. As he explains: “Our study concludes that the critical mass of actors required to address the global commercial drivers of precarious work is still insufficient, as labour agency has been unable to gather enough cross-border support within the global production network, or from government agencies, to exert pressure on lead supermarkets.”


The article calls for greater trans-national collaboration to push for systemic change in commercial Global Production Networks (GPNs). As he adds: “National governments operating at the intersection of global value chain dynamics have a key role to play in this process, via industrial policies which can capture the social and economic gains of production.”

The second paper, which Dr Alford co-authored with Professor Nicola Phillips from King’s College London, focuses on governance and regulation across the fruit industry, concluding that despite the attempt to install an extensive regime of regulatory protection for workers - given additional impetus by the 2012 labour crisis - minimum wage increases have remained below the rising cost of living.

Adds Dr Alford: “We also document the explosive growth in precarious work and casual or ‘externalised’ employment relations as a direct expression of the response by fruit producers to the conflicting demands of commercial and regulatory pressures.”

Leading role

Collaborating with colleagues in the Global Development Institute, Alliance MBS continues to play a major research role in debates around globalisation.

At last year’s UN conference on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, AMBS became one of the first business schools to be invited to host a panel discussion. The topic of that debate was how to combat sexual harassment in global supply chains. One of the panellists was Professor Barrientos who spoke about her research into the flower industry in Kenya and Uganda.


Alford, M. and Phillips, N. (2018) The political economy of state governance in global production networks: change, crisis and contestation in the South African fruit sector. Review of International Political Economy.

Alford, M., Barrientos, S. and Visser, M. (2017) Multi-scalar labour agency in global production networks: Contestation and crisis in South African fruit, Development and Change, vol 48, pp 721-745. doi:10.1111/dech.12317