Strategies for improving labour conditions within the Australian cotton value chain

Project background

Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are extremely active in pressuring brands to be accountable for their social and environmental claims. Labour is currently in the spotlight. More than 20 million employees in garment manufacturing in the Asia-Pacific region are paid below the minimum wage. International Labour Organisation (ILO) ratification in Australia’s export countries is low and non-compliance high (up to 90 per cent). Technology in the sector is rapidly advancing, requiring skills and organisational capacity and replacing jobs (ILO, 2014). This project will provide information to enable the cotton industry to understand labour issues along its value chain and recommend strategies for the industry to explore.

Project Summary

The complexity of the global economy, and changes in labour relations, make it necessary to rethink strategies aimed at improving labour standards along global value chains. Resource limitations and institutional barriers have meant that single actor enforcement strategies have been unable to address the issue, leading to ongoing exploitation of workers. Worker’s rights in the textile and garment industries have come under particular and increasing scrutiny from governments, NGOs and consumers. Practices occurring downstream in the cotton value chain thus represent a reputational risk to the Australian cotton industry and to its valued supply chain partners, including brands and retailers.

We propose that multiple-stakeholder initiatives are key to the strategic enforcement of labour standards along the Australian cotton value chain. Identifying these initiatives and fostering partnerships to enable decent work can create sustainable value for stakeholders as well as the wider community.

Our research questions are:
• What are the critical labour conditions, risks and leverage points in key Asian and African countries of relevance to the Australian cotton value chain?
• For the most relevant cases, what are the characteristics of the selected cases across working conditions, networks, regulatory frameworks, social context, and which actors are best positioned to influence change along the value chain?
• What are the concrete strategies through which the Australian cotton industry can facilitate a strategic enforcement approach to labour standards in the global cotton value chain?

In answering these questions, the project will produce an evidence-based toolkit of strategies that can improve labour standards compliance in the Australian cotton value chain, developing tools and resources for enactment. The outcomes of the research will be used to inform the Australia cotton industry on strategies to improve labour conditions in the cotton value chain, with success measured through industry adoption of a pathway towards ensuring decent work for workers.

Chief Investigators


Other Team Members

  • Rowena Maguire, CI, QUT
  • Erin O'Brien, CI, QUT
  • Ms Justine Coneybeer, Research assistant, QUT
  • Paige Street, Research assistant, QUT
  • Dr Martijn Boersma, CI University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
  • A/Prof Timo Rissanen (UTS)
  • Ms Sarah Bolger, research assistant, UTS
  • Past team members: Associate Professor, Sarah Kaine, CI (UTS), Professor Emmanuel Josserand, CI, UTS