Labour rights in special economic zones : between unilateralism and transnational law diffusion

Cotula, L and Mouan, L (2021) Labour rights in special economic zones : between unilateralism and transnational law diffusion. Journal of International Economic Law, 24 (2). pp. 341-360. ISSN 1369-3034 (

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Special economic zones (SEZs) have spread rapidly over the past 20 years, including in many low- and middle-income countries keen to attract private investment for industrial development. But while much debate has focused on their economic performance and success factors and on links with the wider architecture of international economic law, there are enduring concerns over respect for labour rights in SEZs. These concerns are partly rooted in features of the legal regimes that underpin SEZs, such as arrangements that qualify the application of ordinary labour law, or ineffective systems to ensure compliance. This article discusses the law governing labour rights in SEZs, drawing on the case studies of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Kenya-three countries reflecting different generations of SEZ legislation, types of SEZs, and regulatory approaches. The article explores the complex interplay of different 'unilateral' and international legal regimes, the structural features that affect labour rights in SEZs, and possible ways forward for research and practice.