Book Review (Labrianidis 2008)

Cover of The Moving Frontier: The Changing Geography of Production in Labour-Intensive Industries.

The Moving Frontier: The Changing Geography of Production in Labour-Intensive Industries

Edited by Lois Labrianidis.

2008, Ashgate, £65.00 (hbk), ISBN 0754674487, 272 pages.

Reviewed by Vanessa Parlette, Department of Geography, University of Toronto (04 May 2011)

The internationalization of production has become a defining characteristic of the economy in the decades since World War Two.  The new spatial order of manufacturing has been aided by advances in information and communication technologies and the liberalization of markets, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  The last thirty years have seen an enormous growth in Federal Direct Investment, which by 2000 had expanded to 100 times its 1970 levels and offshore outsourcing has become common practice among large TNCs.  The growing transfer of manufacturing activity from the global north to the global south has drawn a vast body of academic criticism and the focus of social movements and labour activists contesting devastating impacts of deindustrialization on former manufacturing towns and the exploitation of labour and natural resources in newly industrializing countries.  This trend has motivated a cavernous body of scholarship that documents this new spatial division of labour with many arguing that competition to secure transnational investment has motivated a “race to the bottom” where regions and countries lower wages, taxes and environmental restrictions.  The Moving Frontier: The Changing Geography of Production in Labour-Intensive Industries is a timely attempt to probe directly into the motivations and strategies that firms use in deciding to delocalize (why and how) while exploring governance structures and social implications.

The book consists of thirteen chapters, the first and last being an introduction and conclusion written by the editor as a useful framing and summary of the research. The first two of three parts in the book are the result of a European Commission funded study, Project Move.  This multi-national project has drawn together a cross-disciplinary team of collaborators to investigate the processes of delocalization in five European countries that are rarely studied in ensemble, two older EU members: the UK and Greece, and three more recent members, Poland, Estonia, and lastly Bulgaria.  The empirical focus is based on four labour-intensive sectors: clothing, footwear, electronics and software. The methodology consisted of 756 semi-structured questionnaires administered to representatives of firms and 120 key informant interviews drawn from business leaders, politicians, trade unionists, research experts and consultants from all five countries and all four sectors.

Part one sets up the theoretical and conceptual framework of the study.  Chapter two in particular lays out the groundwork for analysis, situating the project within the existing literature.  Authors Kalogeresis and Labrianidis argue that the ‘global division of labour’ argument is too schematic and misses the nuance and diversity of business internationalization.  They seek to draw together Global Production Network (GPN) and Global Commodity Chain (GCC) frameworks with theories of the firm, arguing that the “firm [is] perhaps the single most important actor in all variations of modern capitalism” (p.23).  The focus on the firm and its particular set of resources, advantages and decision-making processes occupies the foreground throughout the book.  However this conceptual chapter also outlines three other analytical dimensions: the sector and related technologies; the environment at local, regional and national scales; and the global environment, including governance structures, policies, institutions and power relations.

In chapter three, “Patterns of Enterprise Strategies in Labour-Intensive Industries: The Case of Five EU Countries”,  Kalantaridis, Vassilev, and Fallon explore the strategies that firms use to delocalize across all four sectors in the study’s five selected countries.  They conclude that there is considerable diversity amongst firms across sectors and nations and even among those in the same country and sector in terms of who delocalizes and how.

In chapter four, Gwosdz and Domanski turn to discussion of the social implications of delocalization within the study countries.  They posit that delocalization need not be a race to the bottom (within the EU) based on data that shows marginal changes in employment rates at a national level in deindustrializing countries which are able to absorb workers into new jobs.  Similarly, they suggest that employment growth in peripheral and receiving areas outweighs the loss in larger centres.  However, they do note that the most significant changes (and the not recorded devastating impacts) exist at the local and regional scales.  Without any consideration of local level data the reader is left to question whether the workers who lost jobs through delocalization are the ones finding new and better employment.

Chapter five provides a comprehensive analysis of both public and private mechanisms of governance at sub/supra and national levels that shape the processes of economic restructuring and delocalization.  Vassilev, Micek and Kourtesis argue that there exists a governance deficit in regulating economic change; these gaps in effective policy protections risk facilitating harmful practices and effects through delocalization, particularly in “weaker” regions.

Part two consists of four strongly written empirical chapters that map out the context and changes to delocalization trends, governance and relationships among firms within each of the four sectors: chapter six, clothing; chapter seven, electronics; chapter eight, footwear; and chapter nine, software.

Part three consists of three chapters from invited contributors whose work is not related to Project Move in order to broaden the scope of the book.  These chapters stand solidly on their own, but are not well linked to the rest of the collection in either framework or focus.  Chapter ten is perhaps the most relevant to Project Move, providing a detailed account of corporate strategies in the software industry drawing on illustrative case studies.  Chapter eleven explores the governance of value chains in Thailand’s manufacturing industry with a particular focus on relationships between buyers and suppliers.  Chapter twelve is a fascinating addition that emphasizes the importance of taking a broader socio-historical approach to studying economic processes through an account of garment manufacturing and second-hand clothing in Kenya.

The sections of the book that relate to Project Move emphasize the complexity and diversity of firm characteristics, delocalization strategies, and decision-making.  However, the aims of the book may be a little over-ambitious and fall short of addressing all four proposed analytical lenses and research questions in suitable depth.  While the governance framework is well articulated and weaved throughout most contributing chapters, there is little to be found in terms of policy recommendations, or discussion of political context at all.

More troubling is that as a qualitative study, neither the empirical foci, nor the sample and selection criteria for participants have been explained or justified. The environment at local, regional and national scales is given scant attention, with no contextualization provided for why any of the five countries were chosen for the study.  Disappointingly, the socio-political history of each region is briefly done away with in three short pages (37-40); elaboration here and integration throughout would be a much valued addition to the literature, particularly in the case of the post-socialist countries.  Ironically, GCC theories are critiqued in chapter two for an over-focus on flows and systems that results in the neglect of history and context.  The same thing happens here where the aggregated data accumulated largely from the perspective of firms overshadows the perspectives of other actors and social processes, lessening the richness that is possible through qualitative methods.  For instance, there is no analysis into the effects on trade union status in either the deindustrializing or newly industrializing regions, nor is there any regional or local level explication of social impacts.

Despite these shortcomings, The Moving Frontier brings forward a heretofore understudied focus on the firm as a key actor in economic restructuring while adding nuance and complexity to the literature on delocalization.  While this is not the book for those seeking a critical assessment of the socio-political labour implications through interactions with economic processes, this market level analysis will be of great interest to researchers and graduate students studying the strategies and processes of international economic restructuring within and beyond the EU.

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