Latest reading on China’s labour movements (October 2014)

29 October, 2014

While I’m no China expert, I do follow the world of labour studies closely—and there’s been a noticeable spurt of important English-language publications on Chinese workers and labour movements in recent weeks. Two standouts are Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap and Lu Zhang’s soon-to-appear book, Inside China’s Automobile Factories.

As well as these books, there is an upcoming volume edited by Anita Chan on ‘Chinese Workers in Comparative Perspective’ with Cornell University Press (on the back of her last edited volume, Walmart in China). There also ongoing comparative projects like the joint study on ‘labour conditions and the working poor’, run from SOAS with collaborators in India and China (see my notes here) and a new project by Nottingham University’s Andreas Bieler and Chun-Yi Lee on the role of Chinese labour in the world economy. Apart from engaging in debate about the links between international political economy and Chinese workers, Bieler and Lee’s project looks particularly fascinating in its analysis of transnational labour activism as well as empirical enquiry into the structure of Chinese industry and the controversial role of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). There is also Kevin Gray’s new book, Labour and Development in East Asia which uses interesting concepts like ‘passive revolution’ to explore the ‘labour-geopolitics-development nexus’, although this work applies to East Asia more generally, not just China. No doubt, there will be other new or forthcoming works that I have escaped by attention.

I mentioned Friedman’s book in a previous post (on 3 October). In relation to ongoing enquiry into the ACFTU’s role, it’s worth noting that much of Friedman’s analysis criticizes its role as a tool of management in major industrial disputes. His book, which has been well-received by labour activists and scholars, also looks at the failure of sectoral (or industry-wide) unions in Zhejiang and at the role of the ACFTU in aiding management during the well-documented 2010 dispute at Nanhai Honda.

Such studies of auto workers provide some context for Lu Zhang’s intervention. Lu Zhang has worked closely with Beverly Silver, whose important work, Forces of Labor, received a lot of attention about a decade ago (and has continued to inspire interest among labour researchers and political economists since). There are a few other studies of the Chinese auto industry – in my view, the best one is Chin (2010) – but Zhang’s is the first book-length study to focus on China’s auto workers. China’s auto industry is massive: it is, by far, the largest producer and consumers of passenger cars in the world. Car and commercial vehicle production grew at an average of 22 per cent each year between 2000 and 2011.

Lu Zhang’s book is due out in early 2015. However, I have read some of her earlier publications which are based on similar fieldwork and methodology (Zhang, 2008; 2011). She got really good access to workers, manager, party officials and trade union officials. In Zhang (2011), the author argues that there has been a tendency of ‘labour force dualism’, with many workers employed on fixed-term contracts and a rising percentage of temps hired through labour agencies (‘agency workers’). This ‘dualism’ has bred wage inequality between workers leading, she argues, to high labour militancy. This, along with other workers’ struggles, helped to influence the formation of the Labour Contract Law in 2008. This law, co-drafted by labour lawyers and trade union officials and bitterly opposed by foreign firms, was the biggest labour reform since the mid-1990s. It is supposed to restrict the short-term contracts which became widespread in the 1990s and 2000s. Under this law, a worker employed under two successive one- or two-year contract is entitled to convert to an ‘open-ended’ contract, although there is some research which shows that the law isn’t always implemented properly due to ‘roughly drafted contracts’.

Zhang (2011) argues that ‘labour force dualism’—keeping the workforce divided by using agency workers—has been used to limit workers’ resistance. In some of the factories she studied, she claims that agency workers formed up to a quarter of all workers by the late 2000s. Temps often do the same work as formal contract workers but they are paid much lower wages. She argues there has been ‘rising activism among the new temporary agency workers against unequal treatment at the workplace’ (Zhang, 2011: 117). She suggests they have a higher level of consciousness and militancy.

I’ll take a look at the book when it comes out, but I’m yet to be convinced by these arguments. In my 3 October post, I pointed to Anita Chan and Kaxton Siu’s argument that Chinese struggles have tended to be limited to ‘rights-based’ rather than ‘interest-based’ demands. While there seems to be some agreement here about the role of recent labour reforms in institutionalizing and limiting workers’ struggles, Chan and Siu offer a more measured, and perhaps more downbeat, assessment of workers’ militancy.

I look forward to reading Lu Zhang’s book and to see the extent to which her analysis has incorporated events since the mid-2000s, as Friedman certainly has. For the auto industry, there remains lot of ongoing research to be done. For instance, Chinese domestic firms (both state-owned like Chery and private firms like Great Wall and Geely) have been growing in importance but all foreign firms remain limited to 50/50 partnerships in joint ventures with state-owned enterprises. Pace Zhang, it’s still not clear how the highly-interventionist role of Chinese state institutions in capitalist enterprises impacts upon labour issues. These and other factors will require close attention in critical studies of strategically-important manufacturing industries like auto production.

Guangzhou’s sanitation workers

While on the topic of Chinese labour, I’ve just read a fantastic report and analysis of the campaign by sanitation workers in Guangzhou for decent severance pay. This is an excellent example of we can use a broadly ‘political economy’ analysis to understand workers’ struggles. Since August, sanitation workers have been striking at the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center, an island complex with 10 universities serving some 200,000 students. As the report outlines, the campaign links into a range of broader political, economic and social issues, including:

  • privatization in disguise: the workers undertake labour for the local government but they are hired by contractors. These contractors are themselves state-owned but must compete vigorously on cost to win government contracts. The workers’ contactor was recently replaced, giving the workers new employment terms which included significantly worse severance pay for long-term workers. Faced with either accepting the new conditions or leaving to find other low-wage employment, the workers organized a strike campaign for decent employment conditions. The report mentions that there have been several strikes in Guangzhou over similar issues since 2008 underpinned by the privatization of urban sanitation services.
  • land dispossession: the island, Xiaoguwei, originally consisted of 13 villages and was annexed by local government in 2003 in order to construct the Mega Center. Villagers were forcibly evicted and received insufficient compensation to afford new houses in the area. Ninety per cent of the workers on strike lost their old homes to these evictions.
  • solidarity: workers, who are mostly island locals, have resisted attempts to divide the workforce. About 10 per cent are migrant workers. In September, the local government tried to allow ‘locals’ back to work while keeping migrant workers locked out. The workers refused to return to work until this demand was dropped. In addition, the workers have received solidarity from some students, who formed Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center Worker Rights Monitor Group to assist the campaign.
  • gender: 80 per cent of the workers are women, who dominate the strike leadership.

After winning an agreement on 9 September to triple their severance pay (based on the contractors’ original offer), the workers had all signed contracts by 12 October.* This is a great example of labour research from a political economy angle and a fascinating glimpse into the world of Chinese labour struggles which occur, for the most, outside the baleful influence of China’s official ‘trade unions’.

*Thanks to China Labor Bulletin for pointing out an error in my original post that the workers had yet to be given new contracts (TB – this correction made on 30 October). CLB’s report on the strike is also very useful but places more emphasis on the assistance of a local labour NGO and on the necessity of formalized collective bargaining.


Chin, G.T. (2010) China’s Automotive Modernisation: The Party-State and Multinational Corporations, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.

Zhang, L. (2008) ‘Lean production and labour controls in the Chinese Automobile industry in an age of globalisation,’ International Labour and Working Class History, 73: 24-44

Zhang, L. (2011) ‘The paradox of labour force dualism and state-labour-capital relations in the Chinese automobile industry’, in Kuruvilla, S., Lee, C.K. and Gallagher, M.E. (2011) From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalisation: Markets, Workers and the State in a Changing China, Ithaca, ILR Press, pp107-37

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