Enforcing labor standards in partnership with civil society: Can co-enforcement succeed where the state alone has failed?

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Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, domestic worker protections, wage theft laws, “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications, and fair scheduling laws. Nevertheless, vulnerable workers still do not trust government to come forward and report labor law violations. The article argues that while increasing the size of the labor inspectorate and engaging in strategic enforcement are necessary, they are not sufficient. It argues that co-enforcement, in which government partners with organizations that have industry expertise and relationships with vulnerable workers, has the potential to manage the shifting and decentralized structures of twentyfirst- century production, which were explicitly designed to evade twentieth-century laws and enforcement capabilities. The article aims to contribute to a broader understanding of the role of organizations in enforcement and the circumstances in which their effectiveness can be maximized. It sets forth a set of scope conditions and mechanisms and examines empirical cases of co-enforcement in Austin, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The main findings are that co-enforcement is most enduring when (1) government agencies and worker organizations recognize each other’s unique capacities, rather than attempt to substitute for one another (2); the effort focuses on a specific industry; and (3) the collaboration receives strong political support. Sustaining the impacts of co-enforcement is found to require greater formalization of the partnership and funding streams.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-388
Number of pages30
JournalPolitics and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Political Science and International Relations


  • Co-enforcement
  • Co-production
  • Labor standards enforcement
  • Strategic enforcement
  • Tripartism
  • Wage theft


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