Multinational firms as emissaries of decent work: worker responses to progressive HRM in a foreign retailer in Japan

Ödül Bozkurt, Chul Chung, Norifumi Kawai and Motoko Honda-Howard (2024), Critical Perspectives on International Business


The paper aims to provide an understanding of how the transfer of progressive human resource management (HRM) practices may or may fail to render multinational enterprises (MNEs) institutional entrepreneurs creating change in job quality and decent work to underprivileged workers in the low-pay retail sector in Japan.


The paper draws on survey questionnaire data and interviews with workers and management in a foreign retailer in Japan.


The findings suggest that even where MNEs may provide some measurable material improvements in job quality, in this case equal pay for equal work, the total outcomes are nevertheless shaped by institutional context and constraints. In this case, the improvement in pay was intertwined with flexibility demands that were possible to meet for some workers but not others. In particular, women with care responsibilities and competing demands on their time were not able to experience “decent work” in the same way as others.

Research limitations/implications

The study had a relatively low response rate, due to lack of discretion over time experienced by workers in Japan, as well as limited data on program outcomes, with interviews conducted with a small number of participants.

Practical implications

The study suggests that spaces and opportunities exist for MNEs to diverge from dominant practices in given host country locations and exercise a level of agency as emissaries of decent work but successful outcomes require a very thorough understanding of individual worker experiences within the institutional constraints of given environments.

Social implications

The study offers insights into the complexities of initiatives by MNEs to contribute to the provision of decent work, particularly for workers in underprivileged positions including women in low-pay sectors such as retail, as firm-level practices lead to variable outcomes when filtered through local institutions.


The study brings together a focus on firm-level practices that inform much of the international HRM and international management scholarship with an emphasis on the experiences of workers, which is pursued in the sociology of work, to investigate whether MNEs can be actors in the realising of the Sustainable Development Goals around decent work.

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