52nd ITH Conference: Commodity Chains and Labour Relations

15-17 September 2016, Steyr


Organised by:
International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH) and kindly supported by the Museum Arbeitswelt Steyr, the Chamber of Labour of Upper Austria, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Institute for the History of Trade Unions and Chambers of Labour, Chamber of Labour of Vienna

Preparatory Group:
Ulbe Bosma (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam), Karin Fischer (Johannes Kepler University Linz), Erich Landsteiner (University of Vienna), Jürgen Kocka, (Berlin Social Science Center/WZB), Andrea Komlosy (University of Vienna), Lukas Neissl (ITH), Susan Zimmermann (ITH)

Due to the increasing linkage and hierarchical connection of global production sites, the concept of global commodity chains has become indispensable for the investigation of production at a global scale. It is based on the observation that commodity production often – and increasingly since the 1970s – exceeds the boundaries of production sites in one country and that specific production processes are being outsourced to subsidiary or subcontracting companies in other countries and, thus, divided among several locations with different legal, wage, social and fiscal systems. Their combination can save costs. In producing raw materials and food, primary producers have also been integrated into transnational commodity chains.

Approaches and concepts in the historical and contemporary commodity chain research differ depending on whether the unequal division of labour in the world-system, the organisation of business networks or the possibility of upgrading companies, regions or states are emphasized. A global historical perspective demonstrates that transnational supply chains – outsourcing and splitting production processes to different locations – are historically by no means new phenomena: Particularly in the textile and metal sector export production has been characterized by transnational commodity chains at least since the “long 16th century”. Even before then, interregional trade existed that occasionally took the shape of commodity chains. In the long term, periods of local centeredness and transregional combination of locations seem to have been alternating.

The ideal-typical distinction between “producer-driven” and “buyer-driven commodity chains” is also relevant for the analysis of power relations from a historical perspective. Whereas large, vertically integrated and multinational industrial enterprises control the usually capital- and technology-intensive production process (e.g. in the automotive industry) in the first case, it is commercial companies and trademark proprietors organising decentralised production networks between regions and beyond national borders in the second case (production of food and consumer goods). Control and governance of these arrangements have become important research areas.

So far, research has given little attention to the specific relations of production, the organisation of the work process within the particular links of a chain and the exchange ratios between them. Therefore, commodity chain research frequently concludes in some kind of “commodity fetishism”. Work – although the basis of production in every involved location – is being neglected as a research subject or merely addressed as a cost factor, without taking interest in the workers, the work processes and the working conditions.

The conference aims to empirically investigate labour relations in commodity chains in their diversity and combination and, thus, also aims to contribute to the conceptual debate on work and labour, value, the functioning of capitalism and the agency or lack of power of directly and indirectly involved producers. On the one hand, it is of central interest to what extent and how working conditions, labour relations and work experiences in particular locations have influenced the formation of product chains. On the other hand, the impact of the involvement in such product chains on labour relations and workers in the particular locations will be explored.

The conference focuses on the role of work and labour in the commodity chain:

The focus is on the mobilisation of labour force for work within the commodity chains and their incorporation and involvement in commodity chains, the (individual and organised) actions of workers and the question how the willingness for integration, refusal and social struggles impact the specific composition and development of different commodity chains.

Special attention will be given to the combination of different labour relations and the effects of such combinations on the companies and workers located at different positions in the production chain, including the linkage of workers operative within the commodity chains with their family members performing unpaid work in their respective households. This requires a broad concept of work including regulated and informal, paid and unpaid, free and unfree work.

Museum Arbeitswelt Steyr, Wehrgrabengasse 7, A-4400 Steyr, Austria

The city of Steyr – the historic hub of a commodity chain in the metal sector – serves as an exemplary venue. Since the early modern period this chain has extended from the Styrian Erzberg to the processing regions of the Eisenwurzen – that were supplied with food (products) from the Alpine foothills – to the sites of highly specialised further processing to weapons and tools in the world economy at that time. In the second half of the 19th century this commodity chain was replaced by centralised metal factories in Steyr that merged all processing steps in their factory halls. While the old factories in the historical Wehrgraben district have been museumized, the city still hosts important companies of the metal, automotive and arms industry that nowadays are however integrated into global commodity chains.

Lukas Neissl
International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH)
c/o Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW)
Altes Rathaus, Wipplinger Str. 6-8/Stg. 3, A-1010 Vienna, Austria
email: ith[a]doew.at


For further information please contact the ITH Secretariat.