The prestigious Industry Studies Association (ISA) recently awarded the organization’s 2013 Dissertation Award to former Wisconsin School of Business Ph.D. student Mevan Jayasinghe. The award focuses on research that uses direct observation at the plant or firm level coupled with relevant theory and quantitative methods, and shows a deep understanding of a specific industry. Jayasinghe, now an assistant professor of human resource management at Michigan State University, examined the voluntary adoption of labor codes and standards in the Sri Lankan apparel industry.
Jayasinghe said he wanted to dig deeper into human resource challenges within an emerging economy and examine the impact of codes and certifications relating to worker rights and ethical working conditions that are considered standard to most westerners. Examples include bans on discrimination and child labor, rules limiting overtime hours, and meeting basic health and safety standards.
“From an emerging economy standpoint, the labor laws may not necessarily address all of these kinds of issues, or they may not be enforced very well. You have a substantial portion of the workforce that is deprived of basic labor standards,” Jayasinghe said. “Committing to these standards could be considered a substantial human resource investment for organizations in those emerging economies.”
The study’s results showed that voluntarily adopting labor codes brought benefits to both the employees of the apparel manufacturing plants and the shareholders or owners. Employees had higher salaries and worked less overtime. The employers saw higher sales volumes, more on-time delivery of products, higher productivity, and fewer employee absences.
While Jayasinghe expected to find higher sales volumes for plants voluntarily adopting labor codes, he was surprised by his findings on selling prices. When he was setting up the study, Jayasinghe said he expected the voluntary adoption of labor codes to allow ethical manufacturers to charge a premium price, yet the prices appeared to be lower among adopting plants. The decrease in prices may actually be due to the productivity increase, which in turn would help lower production costs and allow manufacturers to charge lower, more competitive prices.
Setting up the study and collecting the data was a multi-year process that included several trips to Sri Lanka starting in 2011 to build relationships with industry stakeholders, visit factory floors, and interact with management and supervisory staff. In 2012, Jayasinghe and a team of researchers that he personally trained administered the questionnaire to 122 large, mid-sized, and small plants across the country.
A committee of professors, who advised Jayasinghe on his dissertation, recognized the extensive quantitative and qualitative work involved in the data collection and analysis, and nominated him for the award.
“We nominated Mevan because his dissertation is both of really high quality and an exact fit for ‘industry studies’ research,” said Chip Hunter, associate professor at the Wisconsin School of Business. “In a nutshell, because [this type of research] directly touches real phenomena and provides an understanding of context, it can be quite high impact.”
Past winners of the ISA award hail from top institutions such as New York University, Stanford University, and MIT. Jayasinghe’s research was chosen from dissertations in economics, management, engineering, political science, sociology, and other related interdisciplinary fields completed in 2012-2013.