Our SPERI Spotlight series showcases the work of a researcher at SPERI to give an insight into their research. This month we speak to Dr Natalie Langford about their research on labour in relation to contemporary shifts in trade and production.
What does your research focus on?
My research has focused on the ways through which contemporary shifts in the broader global political economy have affected labour; and how firms, state and civil society actors work to (re)shape the regulatory environment in relation to their own particular interests. My PhD research focused on the shifting geographies of trade and consumption and the implications for ethical standards in emerging markets. Specifically, it looked at the politics involved in the production of new private regulatory standards in the Indian tea market (such as the Trustea standard). In my current research, I am looking at the renegotiation of trade arrangements and on how that affects immigration policy within the context of the UK agricultural sector. Once again, my focus is on how contemporary shifts in geographies of trade and production are affecting the rights and conditions of labour; this time focusing on migrant labour in industrialised countries.
What led to you becoming interested in these issues?
I have always been concerned about the conditions through which people experience work; particularly those in low-paid, and labour intensive jobs. When I left University, I worked within the NGO community, investigating violations of worker rights in the supply chains of European retailers. I saw an opportunity to study for a PhD in which I could examine the tensions between global and local actors in the creation of supply chain standards designed to prevent such violations, and the ways through which local actors were creating alternative standards within their domestic markets. I was lucky enough to study at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester.
What are the challenges involved in researching these areas of interest?
In my PhD, challenges certainly existed over the changing perception of both foreign researchers and NGOs within India. Given that the regulation and governance of labour standards is an inherently political topic, I took extra care to protect the anonymity of participants within my research.
What are the key future research questions in your area of study?
I think that the rapidly changing geopolitics we have witnessed since around 2014 (such as a rise in authoritarian and/or populist leaders, and rising protectionism in trade) has huge ramifications for the regulation of labour standards. In the UK, which is my current area of study, there is a fear that future trade competitiveness will rest on the further deregulation and flexibilisation of labour markets, coupled with significant changes to immigration policy. For labour intensive sectors dependent on migrant labour, (such as agriculture) there are serious questions regarding the treatment of workers as well as the overall competitiveness of the sector in the context of Brexit. I’m also interested in how the domestic work force may be affected by changes to immigration policy, and evolving attitudes to workfare versus welfare.
What does being a member of SPERI mean to you?
Perhaps the best aspect of being a postdoctoral researcher at SPERI is the opportunity to work within a friendly team of researchers who I can learn a lot from. It has been really great to delve into a new research project too, and to begin to think in more detail about comparative research across industrialised and emerging countries, and on how we respond to and conceptualise the exploitation of labour across different sectors, and institutional contexts.