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Isabelle Martin

Over recent decades, transnational firms have moved toward financial concentration on the one hand, and toward decentralization of production on the other. The effect has been that a greater portion of these firms’ workers are beyond the reach of positive labour law, while the firms themselves are even more powerful. In this context, the notion of corporate social responsibility has emerged, simultaneously providing opportunities to defend workers’ rights, while also presenting disadvantages and challenges for transnational labour law (TLL). Socially responsible corporate governance can helpfully link transnational firms to working conditions prevailing across their production chain, by establishing new forums for participation—through shareholder engagement, at the transnational level, and through new channels such as consumer law, corporate law, and even banking law—and enhancing the visibility of the core ILO Conventions, whose working condition standards have been incorporated into key corporate social responsibility instruments. It is nevertheless important for TLL to preserve what sets it apart, such as its focus on collective action, as socially responsible corporate governance also entails disadvantages for workers. The three major disadvantages of the approach are its focus on the maximization of shareholder value, its conception of workers as merely one among many sets of “stakeholders” that firms must take into account, and its enhancement of the power not of workers, but rather of shareholders and directors. These actors gain increased legitimacy as the best defenders of stakeholders, while the implementation of codes of conduct can increase a firm’s hold over workers across the production chain and undermine the actions of local unions. It is thus essential that TLL preserve an unshakeable focus on worker protection, as only such a focus will enable it to avoid being co-opted by socially responsible corporate governance.