- Chinese Labor in a Korean Factory: Class, Ethnicity, and Productivity on the Shop Floor in Globalizing China by Jaesok Kim
In Chinese Labor in a Korean Factory, Jaesok Kim argues that, unlike the popular images of powerful Multinational Corporations (MNCs) manipulating (and sacrificing) local culture and economy, the corporations in reality are required to transform their “global” principles regarding factory operations into a “local” culture-friendly environment in order to survive global market competition. To substantiate this argument, he provides a careful and thorough ethnography that examines the changing tactics of a South Korean corporate management group in the garment industry as it seeks to maintain control of labor both inside and outside the shop floor in China. In Kim’s intriguing ethnography, this foreign corporation with economic power struggles to maintain the “principle of independent management” (191) without the interference of local political powers. In addition, the South Korean management also confronts labor resistance by rank-and-file Chinese workers when the management seeks to exercise more “global” practices of labor control, such as impersonal relationships between management and laborers and “labor-squeezing methods” (213) based on Taylorist time-motion studies, indifferent to the workers’ singular demand: “decent” wages (157).
Chinese Labor in a Korean Factory belongs to a growing body of ethnographic literature on factory labor, (transnational) corporate management, and resistance. In particular, Kim’s ethnography converses with China scholars—including Ching Kwan Lee (1998), Lisa Rofel (1999), and Pun Ngai (2005) —who have analyzed how the capitalist management of labor has especially exploited young women laborers since the beginning of [End Page 955] the economic reform and opening period in China (from roughly the early 1980s to the present) (Potter and Potter 1990:319). The book’s unique contribution, however, is to focus on the management side of the story, rather than that of the laborers, by illuminating the cultural discourse about and the “rationalized” justifications for the attempts, failures, and/or successes of various techniques of labor control by a South Korean management company. This is not to say that Kim ignores the voices of other players within the dynamics of post-Fordist production—such as the Chinese rural to urban migrant workers, who occupy the lowest ranks in the plant—since his thick description includes a fair amount of interviews and conversations with factory workers. The format of the book, nevertheless, traces the transformation of the management tactics chronologically and adds the voices of the workers complementarily—not, as the title suggests, primarily—in order to explain the cultural causes and impacts of these changing labor control tactics geared toward increased productivity.
Within the book’s structure, Kim accentuates the interplay of various agents at diverging levels of power and powerlessness in order to dispute the widespread assumptions of the “unilateral” mode of globalization. He sketches countervailing bureaucratic approaches to MNC operations by the central and provincial Chinese governments and village (county level) officials. In Kim’s analysis, the MNC itself is not a single entity but consists of two parts with sometimes antagonistic interests: the management of the mother company, Nawon Korea, with headquarters in South Korea and the management of the subsidiary production plant in China, named Nawon. In addition, laborers are also separated into three hierarchical groups: 1) more privileged urban Han-Chinese residents who are supported by the village officials; 2) the most discriminated young, rural, migrant Han-Chinese women whose temporary urban residency status (hukou) is under the control of Nawon and the village officials; and lastly 3) Korean-Chinese interpreters who are ranked higher than Han-Chinese, which is an unusual situation in China as Korean-Chinese are marginalized and looked down upon by Han-Chinese nationwide. Kim proposes one more player in this picture: a local Chinese gang who allegedly collaborates with village officials (169). Exemplifying his skillful articulation of the manifold interactions between these agents, Kim posits that the tripartite collusion among the foreign management, village officials, and local gang protects the MNC from the central government...