Transnational Activism, Global Labor Governance, and China

Sabrina Zajak

19. Januar 2017

MPIfG Book


New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
286 pages
ISBN 978-1-349-95021-8 (hardback)
ISBN978-1-349-95022-5 (e-book)

"This book provides a valuable account of the multiple paths that global reformers have taken, from corporate social responsibility to diplomacy to the promotion of civil society." (Tim Bartley, Ohio State University)

» Publisher's page
Zajak, Sabrina
Transnational Activism, Global Labor Governance, and China. Non-Governmental Public Action. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.


As China integrates into the global political economy, it is confronted with rising labor unrest. In this process, the country is pulled in two directions bythe tension between its efforts to internationalize and accept claims to respect freedom of association rights on the one hand, and its continuing insistence on a restrictive, and often punitive, approach to worker organizations on the other. In Transnational Activism, Global Labor Governance, and China. Non-Governmental Public Action, Sabrina Zajak examines how the global labor movement can support the improvement of working conditions in Chinese factories. The book presents a novel multi-level approach capturing how trade unions and labor rights NGOs have mobilized along different pathways while attempting to influence labor standards in Chinese supply chains since 1989: within the ILO, within the European Union, by leveraging global brands, and by directly supporting domestic labor rights NGOs. Based on extensive fieldwork in Europe, the US, and China, the book shows that activists, by operating on multiple scales, were on some occasions able to support improvements over time. It also indicates how a politically and economically strong state such as China can affect transnational labor activism by directly and indirectly undermining the opportunities that organized civil societies have to participate in the evolving global labor governance architecture.


1  Introduction: Multilevel Labor Activism, Transnational Institutions, and China
2  Defining the Shadow of the Dragon: China's Internal and External Strength
3  Transnational Activism within the International-Organizational Pathway. The Case of the ILO
4  The Bilateral Pathway: The European Union and China
5  The Market Pathway
6  The Civil Society Pathway
7  Conclusion: Labor Transnationalism in Global Capitalism and Plural Institutional Settings


Sabrina Zajak

Sabrina Zajak is Junior Professor of Globalization Conflicts, Social Movements, and Labor at the Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany. She is Founding Member of the Institute for Protest ad Social Movement Research in Berlin and Head of the research group "Transnational Alliances between Social Movements and Trade Unions in Europe". Her other research focuses on protests in Germany and pathways of labor rights activism between Asia and Europe in a comparative perspective. She was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne from 2007 to 2011.


"This innovative study aptly blends different but thus far disconnected bodies of literature to analyze the various pathways, including transnational political activism, to enhance labor rights in China. The book enriches our understanding of a complex and multi-layered system of interaction that leads to a slow and selective convergence between Chinese labor politics and international standards."
Dieter Rucht, Professor Emeritus, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
"Social movement studies have often worked under the implicit assumption that protests only develops in democracy. This rich analysis of labour activism in China convincingly points instead at the multilevel dynamics that allow for new labour transnationalism. It shows how different actors build networks across places of production and consumption within the complex multilevel architecture of global labour."
Donatella della Porta, Professor of Political Science, Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy
"Labor rights in China have been in the global spotlight for nearly three decades. While most research focuses on a single great hope for improving workers’ rights, this book provides a valuable account of the multiple paths that global reformers have taken, from corporate social responsibility to diplomacy to the promotion of civil society."
Tim Bartley, Associate Professor of Sociology, Ohio State University, USA
"This is a theoretically-informed and empirically-grounded book. Sabrina Zajak offers a timely account on how multi-level actors interact with each other to shape labor rights in China. It makes substantial contributions to globalization, China and labor studies."
Chris King-Chi Chan, Associate Professor of Sociology, City University of Hong Kong

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