This thesis aims to understand the role of public governance (national laws and regulations) in addressing poor working conditions on South African fruit farms connected to global production networks (GPN), at the intersection of global private (codes of conduct) and local civil society organisation (CSO) initiatives. A particular objective of the investigation is to understand the extent to which public governance is able to address working conditions on South African fruit export farms, taking into account wider global commercial pressures inherent in fruit GPNs. Much analysis of global private and governance by local CSOs has not sufficiently addressed the role of public governance. Research focusing on public governance in addressing working conditions in South African fruit has not sufficiently accounted for the multi-scalar interactions between lead firm supermarkets, national suppliers and local fruit producers. These interactions are positioned to shape and influence regulatory outcomes for different groups of permanent and casual farmworkers. The thesis seeks to address the following central research question: ‘To what extent do multi-scalar tensions in global production networks (GPNs) challenge the public governance of working conditions, and what are the lessons from labour operating in South African fruit production?’
This research draws upon the GPN analytical framework and public governance research, in order to conceptualise the multi-scalar commercial and governance processes that play out in the South African fruit export sector. In doing so, this research seeks to contribute to existing GPN and public governance literatures. Previous GPN research has not sufficiently investigated the role of public governance (laws and regulations) in addressing working conditions, partly due to an assumption that neoliberal policies have eroded the ability of developing states to regulate labour incorporated into global production. This problematic is beginning to be addressed, due to increasing academic acknowledgement of the central regulatory role nation states continue to play in addressing working conditions in global production, at the intersection of global private (codes of conduct) initiatives and governance by local CSOs (NGO and trade union activity). Additionally, this thesis seeks to bring together two separate strands of ‘governance’ research in global production networks, which have thus far been investigated separately; the governance of commercial interactions on the one hand, and the governance of labour on the other. A key theoretical argument is that understanding challenges facing the public governance of labour requires a broader conceptualisation of the governance of multi-scalar commercial interactions in global production, which shape and influence workforce composition at local farm level.
This thesis argues that an inherent multi-scalar tension exists on the one hand between ‘global commercial pressures’ exerted by global lead firms over national suppliers and local producers driving workforce casualisation, and on the other hand a ‘global governance deficit’ at the core of which lies a public governance deficit facing increasing numbers of casual workers, characterised by minimum wages insufficient to meet living costs and a lack of trade union representation. This tension, it is argued, underpinned the crisis in South African fruit in 2012/13, when casual workers mobilised to demand an increase in the agricultural minimum wage, and threatened the fruit value chain by blocking the main arterial routes to Cape Town port. The policy implications of this thesis are that nation states are required to adopt multi-scalar interventions which transcend traditional forms of governance, in order to address the global commercial pressures inherent in GPNs and protect increasing numbers of casual workers in this context.