Worker-driven Innovation in the Globalised Economy

  • Worker-driven Innovation in the Globalised Economy – Learning from Encounters

    13-15 June 2016

    International forum bringing together labour rights activists and scholars to discuss concrete ways in which workers have challenged the economic, political and social structures that marginalize them.

Forum objective and questions

This Forum started from the assumption that worker-driven innovation in a globalized economy can benefit from encounters between workers’ organizations, their allies in other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia for mutual inspiration, learning, critical dialogue and networking.

It engaged with the following questions:

  1. Which factors promote worker-driven innovation?
  2. What particular conditions make organizing/strategizing more favourable?
  3. How can worker-driven innovation be made effective in the long-term?
  4. How can upscaling of worker-driven innovation be achieved in the globalized economy?

Forum outputs

  • Download the detailed Forum report.
  • 'A worker-driven way out of the crisis in Mediterranean agriculture', Giulio Iocco and Karin Astrid Siegmann - this brief Global Labour Column presents SOS Rosarno, an association of farm workers, farmers and activists in Calabria, Italy as an innovative response from below to the extreme exploitation and precarity of migrant farmworkers in the Mediterranean region, as well as to the retailer-driven crisis of small-scale farming. Lamine (Mohamed Rassoulou) Niang represented SOS Rosarno and the worker cooperative Mani e Terra (Hands and Land) during the Forum.
  • Three articles in the November 2016 issue of DevISSues on 'Worker-driven change - the role of academia?' also cover some of the proceedings and outcomes of the Forum.

Video of 13-15 June 2016


Neo-liberal governance of production has involved the liberalization of international trade and investment as well as a weakening of protective labour regulation. It has led to the restructuring of the production of goods and services in global value chains and to a rise in insecure work across different regions of the world, across sectors, even in formal establishments.

Trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other advocates of labour rights have long criticized these poor labour conditions as a result of a ‘race to the bottom’ in globalized and more competitive production networks since the 1990s. Transnational corporations, in particular, have responded to this critique with the development and implementation of different types of non-governmental labour regulation, often labelled corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. While usually designed to pre-empt governmental intervention, these initiatives have gradually matured to involve a wider range of stakeholders.

Yet, the present generation of such initiatives in value chains tends to treat workers as a voiceless production factor and ignore workers’ agency. Workers who are covered by non-governmental codes of labour practice are seen as passive objects for social auditing purposes. Further, most trade unions and other labour organizations play rather marginal roles in the multi-stakeholder initiatives that set and implement these private codes. It has also been shown that the most precarious workers rarely benefit from non-governmental labour regulation. We consider these to be key reasons for the widespread failure of these initiatives to effectively improve labour conditions in value chains. Even in legally regulated labour relations, whether regulation is able to effectively guarantee workers’ rights and decent labour conditions is dependent upon the workers’ power. The question then arises as to how labour relations in the global economy can be governed, in order to guarantee labour justice more effectively.

Our starting point for this Forum is that, in order to achieve more decent labour conditions, workers’ agency needs to play a central role in different forms of labour regulation.

Worker-driven innovation in the globalized economy

While worker precariousness is widespread, we are also witnessing encouraging examples where workers and labour organizations, jointly with allies, have successfully challenged the economic, political and social structures that marginalize them:

For example, Florida farm workers have developed an innovative Fair Food Program that holds fast food chains and supermarkets accountable for decent working conditions in tomato fields. Indonesian workers producing sportswear have successfully lobbied for an agreement with large brands and manufacturing firms for a Freedom of Association Protocol that has the potential to re-balance power between workers and factory management. 

Domestic workers around the globe have come out of the invisibility of their private workplaces to lead a campaign for recognition and rights that led to an international Domestic Workers Convention and the establishment of the International Domestic Workers Federation.

International Forums

These initiatives offer a glimpse of the potential power of workers to (re-)establish rights and improve working conditions. Their strategic use of transnational networking, lobbying in international forums and norm diffusion can also inspire scaling up of worker-driven innovation in the globalized economy. The Forum offers an opportunity to share some of these experiences as a way to draw from the strengths and lessons learned of past experiences.