Loughborough University
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Varieties of unionism? Trade union strategies and the challenges of establishing industrial relations at Chinese MNCs in sub-Saharan Africa

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posted on 2023-08-31, 08:19 authored by John Vivian

China’s rapid economic development is perhaps the most significant shift in the global political economy in recent times. One of the regions of the world in which China has been particularly active is sub-Saharan Africa, with Chinese multinational corporations (MNCs) investing heavily in the region since the late 1990s. A growing body of academic scholarship has been concerned with labour relations at Chinese MNCs that are operating in sub-Saharan Africa, (Akorsu & Cooke, 2011; Baah & Jauch, 2011; F. L. Cooke, Wang, & Wang, 2018; T. Jackson, 2014; K. Kamoche, Siebers, Mamman, & Newenham-Kahindi, 2015) though few studies have provided cross-national comparisons of trade union strategies and outcomes. This thesis seeks to fill this gap, asking the following three research questions which frame the empirical findings chapters.

Firstly, what are the challenges that Chinese MNCs present to trade unions in sub-Saharan Africa? Secondly, what strategies do unions adopt in sub-Saharan Africa in order to establish industrial relations with Chinese MNCs? And finally, what were the outcomes of attempts to establish industrial relations at Chinese MNCs? In answering these questions, a novel theoretical framework is established, which synthesises theoretical approaches including varieties of unionism (Frege & Kelly, 2004, 2013) and neo-colonialism (Nkrumah, 1965).

The thesis makes the contribution of providing a cross-national comparison of employer strategies, union strategies and union outcomes in this under-researched region of the global political economy, extending the varieties of unionism approach in the process. Empirical data are sourced from five distinct host countries, namely Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The thesis finds relative convergence of employer strategies, characterised by violations of domestic labour laws and trade union avoidance tactics in each of these five countries. Despite these shared challenges, unions are found to adopt divergent strategies in seeking to establish industrial relations with Chinese MNCs. This thesis identifies the novel strategy of education and training initiatives, and the novel tactic of media exposure, which are both found to be of particular relevance in the sub-Saharan African context. Union outcomes are again found to be divergent in the five host country settings, a phenomenon best explained by the combination of varied strategies unions adopt, varied host country labour institutions and the role of host country governments.



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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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Tony Edwards ; Philipp Kern ; Ling Zhang

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  • PhD

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  • Doctoral

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