A Case Study of Reebok’s Athletic Foorwear Supplier Factory in China

Thursday, June 14, 2007

By Xiaomin Yu

ABSTRACT. This study examines the social impacts of labor-related corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies or corporate codes of conduct on upholding labor standards through a case study of CSR discourses and codes implementation of Reebok – a leading branded company enjoying a high-profiled image for its human rights achievement – in a large Taiwanese-invested athletic footwear factory located in South China. I find although implementation of Reebok labor-related codes has resulted in a ‘race to ethical and legal minimum’ labor standards when notoriously inhumane and seriously illegal labor rights abuses were curbed, Chinese workers were forced to work harder and faster but, earned less payment and the employee-elected trade union installed through codes implementation operated more like a ‘company union’ rather than an autonomous workers’ organization representing worker’ interests. In order to explain the paradoxical effects of Reebok labor-related codes on labor standards, I argue the result is determined by both structural forces and agency-related factors embedded in industrial, national and local contexts. To put it shortly, I find the effectiveness of Reebok laborrelated codes is constrained not only by unsolved tension between Reebok’s impetus for profit maximization and commitment to workers’ human rights, but also by hardnosed competition realities at marketplace, and Chinese government’s insufficient protection of labor rights. Despite drawing merely from a single case study, these findings illuminate key determinants inhibiting the effectiveness of labor-related CSR policies or codes in upholding labor standards, and hence two possible wayouts of the deadlock: (1) sharing cost for improving labor standards among key players in global supply chain; and (2) combining regulatory power of voluntary codes and compulsory state legislations.

KEYWORDS: athletic footwear industry, China, corporate codes of conduct, corporate social responsibility, labor standards, Reebok, trade union, wages