South–South trade and collective labour laws: do developing countries race to the top when they trade with the South?

  • Jonas GamsoEmail author
Original Article


Scholars have long debated whether trade leads to a ‘race to the bottom’ or to a ‘race to the top’ in the labour standards of developing countries. Recent literature has offered encouraging findings consistent with the latter theory: stringent labour laws diffuse from importing countries to their export partners in the developing world. This finding has advanced our understanding of trade and labour rights, but more fine-grained analysis can further clarify what sorts of bilateral trade partnerships generate diffusion. In particular, South–South trade appears not to be characterised by the competitive pressures and foreign policy norms that produce labour rights diffusion. As such, this study compares the diffusion effects of South–South trade to those of other types of trade, using data covering 104 developing countries from 1986 to 2011. Results demonstrate that South–South trade is not accompanied by diffusion of labour laws, in contrast to other types of trade. This finding has important implications: whereas empirical results in earlier work suggest that developing countries will experience labour rights betterment if they export intensively to partners with stringent labour standards, my findings clarify that this will not occur if those partners are countries of the Global South.


Diffusion Globalisation Labour rights Policy convergence South–South trade 



Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2016 meetings of the International Studies Association (ISA) and the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA), and on a Virtual International Political Economy Society (IPES) panel. The author thanks participants in those sessions, as well as Kevin Morrison, Martin Staniland, Meredith Wilf, Luke Condra, Jude Hays, three anonymous reviewers, and the editors at the JIRD for helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Thunderbird School of Global ManagementArizona State UniversityGlendaleUSA

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