- Chinese Migrant Workers and Employer Domination: Comparisons with Hong Kong and Vietnam by Kaxton Siu
This book is a very well-written account of labor relations in Chinese garment factories located in Shenzhen, which the author compares with those in Hong Kong (before and after production was relocated to Shenzhen) and Vietnam (mostly in the present). I was originally a bit skeptical about the comparison since the research design did not seem to be comparative from the beginning. Later, however, I came to appreciate the value of placing the changing Chinese labor relations as part of the global politics of production that encompasses what happened in Hong Kong in the past and in Vietnam in the present. By tracing the changing demographics and gendered power relations on the shop floor through time and space, the author is able to document the shifting power dynamics at once shaped by state policies, the changing configuration of the workforce, and the malleability of global capital in the face of local practices and social relations. The spatial fix of global capitalism (Harvey), it seems, is never that straightforward or smooth, often unfolding out of a struggle between multiple place-based actors, not least the workers providing labor for its expansion.
The research draws on a variety of data sources, including the author’s personal reflections as one of the children whose mothers were working in the Hong Kong garment industry in the 1970s, an extensive set of personal letters written and received by factory workers in the 1990s, and empirical work in Shenzhen and Ho Chi Minh City. The empirical part was based on long-term fieldwork and surveys with workers in both places. It is a complex and ambitious analysis that the author handles competently. What emerges is an interesting account that makes several important interventions.
First, the author complicates the “subjugation model” that had long been a staple of the Chinese labor literature. This model suggests that workers in the global factories of China are made into victims of exploitative labor regimes facilitated by a state eager to attract foreign capital for the sake of national development. Research based on this perspective portrays a docile migrant labor force largely comprising young female rural [End Page 233] migrants who are simultaneously subjugated by the state, global capital, and patriarchal power. Disciplined by the fast-paced rhythm of industrial labor and the confines of dormitory living, their social and political prospects do not extend much beyond the shop floor (see, for example, works by Ching Kwan Lee and Pun Ngai). The author paints a more complicated picture in which the relationship between power actors has been significantly reconfigured by workers’ changing life expectations and state policies. He also shows that shop-floor power relations are intimately intertwined with the gendered claims and desires of the workers, before and now. As Hong Kong was still a frontier of the global garment industry, women workers were juggling child care and housework with factory work, often mixing up the two out of necessity. This practice was tolerated by managers as long as it did not excessively disrupt the workflow. In Shenzhen today, workers increasingly live in rental places close to the factory and maintain a more self-determined life beyond its boundaries, reducing the possibility for managers to control their life outside of work.
Power relations on the shop floor and in the labor market, meanwhile, have been shifting with the greater heterogeneity of the garment workforce in the past decade, which now include more men and older women, in contrast to the predominantly young and female workforce of the 1990s. Today, men and women often find themselves in inverted power hierarchies in which (mostly younger) men work under the supervision of female managers. While older female workers have relatively weaker position (because of their difficulty in finding new jobs due to their age), younger workers, especially young men, are more assertive in articulating their expectations regarding work conditions and social life. A prevalent notion...