An Interview with BCB’s Professor Dr. Gale Raj-Reichert

It’s a grey Berlin morning, and Prof. Gale Raj-Reichert welcomes me into her shared office in K24, offering me a seat on the couch, a glass of water, and my thoughts on the reading for our class together later in the day, “The Political Economy of Globalization.” I have always been interested in globalisation, and understanding how our world is connected (for better or worse) in so many different ways, so I was very excited to be able to conduct this interview. Over the next twenty minutes, I enjoyed getting to know a whole other side of one of the many talented members of the politics faculty, discussing Gale’s research on labour governance in global production networks (specifically in the electronics industry), her personal life, and her hopes for her future at Bard College Berlin:

First of all, would you mind telling us a bit about yourself?

Okay, I’ll start by saying where I’m from, because I know that sort of shapes my research interests, and me as an academic. I was born in Malaysia in 1976, and I can already mention that as being relevant in some way, because I lived through the final years of the Cold War and in Southeast Asia. I moved to the US when I was ten and grew up in Michigan, which I still consider to be my formative years. I went to the University of Michigan and studied environmental science and policy for my undergrad degree. I then worked a few years at a pretty large grant and funding organization, where I became really interested in international trade and international policy issues, because I was working on how trade and international finance affect developing countries. I then studied public policy for my masters degree, and then I worked for three years right after that in Geneva at an organization that was helping developing countries negotiate in the World Trade Organization. It (the work for this organization) was very much informed by politics, because we were an organization only for the Global South, and that became quite frustrating because politics are dirty, and sometimes you think you just can’t win. 

That actually leads me to another question I have. You have written and published a lot of work besides teaching at BCB, particularly focusing on labour governance and labour rights in the Global South. I was wondering if you’d like to say exactly what you do outside of BCB, and maybe explain your work further?

For my research besides teaching at BCB, I interview firms. That’s one of the hardest things to do, but over many years I’ve built trusted relationships with the brands and the suppliers I interview. They’re always kept anonymous in my reports and papers, but what I do is really try to understand how they’re managing this constant problem that they have (with poor working conditions, exploitation, and labour rights). What that means is I get grant funding to do research projects by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), and I actually received the approval for a second grant a couple of days ago, so I will hopefully be doing more research in the near future. I was on secondment from Queen Mary to work at the WZB, the Berlin Social Science Center, because I got this three year grant from the DFG to do this one research project. This research project was a little bit different, because I spent so many years looking at private standards and private companies, which are full of problems, loopholes, etc.

I tend to believe that whilst not the perfect solution, an important solution is that governments need to get involved, where the companies and brands are located, or where the people are purchasing the products that are made in the Global South. The EU is one of the largest markets in the world and there is this idea that the EU, because it has such a large consumer market, is very important for setting global norms, as EU regulations and directives can take on a life of their own globally. I was interested to see something that happened recently, which was public procurement, which is when governments purchase products, particularly a lot of electronics. It’s worth thinking about wars right now. A lot of these are products to manage things like intelligence, data, security etc, such as high tech computer equipment. And now in the EU you can actually, by law, allow government purchasing to include social conditions, including in global supply chains, global value chains. The project I did, and it’s still going on at the moment, is to understand how that’s being carried out in the EU. It’s called socially responsible public procurement, and it’s really interesting.

Wow, that’s some really important research and work you’re doing right now. How did you get into researching and writing about this, about labour rights and conditions in the Global South, in the first place?

I got into this when I did my Ph.D. at the University of Manchester; I was really interested in the whole outsourcing aspect of the global economy. I was working a lot on trade, but actually so much of what companies do is based on what they want to do: they can outsource their job, outsource manufacturing, they don’t really care if there’s trade rules or laws, and there isn’t really a global organization to regulate around this. From here, I was very interested in researching what we now call global supply chains, or global value chains, or global production networks, and how all of this outsourcing was being sent to the Global South. And one of the major negative impacts of that is on working conditions. 

We all know these stories about slave labor, forced labor, and unsafe work conditions in factories. The garments industry has such a history of this, but electronics tends to be a little bit hidden, because you don’t hear so much about this. We know about industries like the sweatshop movement in the US, but when I started to do research on the electronics industry, in the mid 2000s, no one had really heard about electronics also being quite bad in terms of their global value chains. We used to have this idea that these were high tech products being made in these fancy, highly regulated factories; but actually people are getting poisoned; they’re getting cancer; they’re getting all sorts of diseases. People get exploited just like in the garment industry, but they are in a fancier kind of factory, where they’re still being treated terribly. I became really interested to find out about and do my research on that. 

I did my Ph.D. and also my post-doc on Malaysia, because it’s a major production location for electronics outside of China. I’m a qualitative researcher, which means that I do field work. My Ph.D. is in development studies and it’s very much a part of the methodology of doing development studies that you go in the field, you spend time there, you need to interview people. And I found that just so rewarding, because people want to talk. People want to be able to tell their stories. However, a lot of my research is focused not on workers, even though I’m looking at what’s happening to workers, but on the firms themselves. I want to know how do firms deal with this? They know that this bad stuff is going on. If we take the example of Apple and Foxconn, there’s so many suppliers to Apple. Apple is outsourcing the manufacturing of their products, and there are suppliers just waiting in the wings to get these contracts. Apple will ask these suppliers to bid how much they can produce their products for at the lowest cost, whilst maintaining quality. And the result of that is they lower the costs where they can, which is always for workers’ health and safety, because they have to maintain the quality of the product so they cannot cut material costs. Then you have all sorts of other factors, such as countries that allow foreign workers to come in without protecting them and they get completely exploited, and often trapped in cycles of forced labour. We hear a lot about the Uighur situation in China now, but forced labour has been a massive problem in Malaysia for a long time, as well as in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. 

My interest has been to try to figure out how these firms, these brands and their suppliers, are going about managing this problem, from a critical perspective, because this is a lot about corporate social responsibility. A lot of that is writing shiny reports about what they did and all the audits that they’ve conducted. I try to just bring a bit of a critical lens to this, because at the end of the day, it’s just paperwork. They’re just pushing reports around. Of course, I would say that there is a bit more meaningful work being done than before, but still nowhere near enough. 

You’ve been able to do some really interesting work as an academic, inside and outside of Europe. As you are coming to BCB from working at the geography department of Queen Mary University London (QMUL), what were some of the big differences for you when you started working here?

Yes, it’s so different! The biggest difference is that BCB is very small, I mean very, very small. But it’s really nice from a teaching perspective because I get to sit in class with you all; and you’re all chatty, and involved, and engaged, and you’re interested in these issues! At  universities in the UK there is this tradition of lecturing, and being very quiet during the lectures, so I got very good at doing that because I was also lecturing at Manchester before Queen Mary. It’s like what you see in the movies, right? You’re on this stage: I had two floors of students watching me, and then I’m making all these slides that are entertaining… It’s theatre. You become really good at performing as a lecturer; you’re spending all this time preparing for that performance. But then I have no idea if it’s being received well and enjoyed. Because of this I really wanted to teach in a place like BCB, because you feel a rewarding aspect of teaching; because you can see we’re engaged together, and you’re all learning something. And I really do think the students here have such a privileged experience. It’s really unlike so many other universities. 

One final thing, do you have any advice for BCB students based on your own experiences?

Well, advice to students… I mean, undergrad is a phenomenal time in someone’s life. It really is. I will never forget my undergraduate years in university. You change so much as a person. A lot of people think high school is your formative years but actually, I think it’s undergrad.

There’s something about it, because there is this flexibility with your major at BCB because of its American style; because you have the ability to take different classes across different areas. The other thing that’s amazing about BCB is how international it is! When I went to the University of Michigan, that was also quite international but it depends on which degree you’re in. But BCB is so international. Maybe for you and the others it’s normal to learn from each other, to hear these stories from different parts of the world. But this is amazing, you wouldn’t even get this in German universities, or other universities. You’re coming out of here with such a global perspective. Just to be so aware of that and the rest of the world, it’s an experience that’s going to shape you all to be really good people. The advice is to soak it up, and to enjoy your time, and to not stress so much! But I know that’s difficult. You will all do well, because we’re all rooting for you, everyone’s here to make sure everyone’s going to do well. Just don’t take your experience here for granted, because it’s going to stay with you forever!

As we wrap up the interview, Gale and I chat about the weather, my classes including Gale’s The Political Economy of Globalization course, and our personal experiences with QMUL and the East End of London. I felt very grateful to have had this interview and these conversations with Gale, as I gained a new perspective on her classes and the material she teaches at BCB, as well as a better understanding of her passion for her area of academia, and for her students.

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