The End of Pragmatic Authoritarianism? New Developments in State-Labour Relations in China, 2-3 September 2016, London

Jenny Chan spoke at LSE/SOAS workshop on Chinese Labor

Organizers: Jude Howell (LSE) and Tim Pringle (SOAS)

Informalization of labor, the changing legal regime, and the Chinese state

Presenter: Jenny Chan
Assistant Professor
Department of Applied Social Sciences
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
jenny.wl.chan@polyu.edu.hkwlchan_cuhk@yahoo.com

Bargaining through workers’ direct actions, such as strikes and protests, has been and remains a viable way to address workers’ shared grievances. To maintain governance legitimacy, the state continues to search for mechanisms for resolving labor conflicts and managing social discontent. Researchers stress the role of ‘the activist state’ in which the Chinese government has struggled to maintain its labor system through more direct management of labor disputes. The immediate result is that, in many cases, workers’ demands are partially addressed and collective actions broken up. Indeed, officials have skilfully developed a wide array of ‘protest absorption’ techniques to settle labor disputes at the scene, with the goal of maintaining socio-political stability, such as lowering workers’ ‘realistic’ expectation of claims to compensation, and pressuring management to grant some economic concessions to adversely affected workers. The state–labor relationships are contentious, requiring ever more legislative efforts, media advocacy, and direct involvement in labor management by government officials.

At the key nodes of production, the integration of large manufacturers in transnational supply chains and tight delivery schedules for consumer products potentially enhance workers’ bargaining power at the workplace level (see our first-hand research of Foxconn workers’ resistance in the global production chains, 2010-2016). With workers’ growing awareness of the opportunities presented by the fact that giant corporations face pressures to meet quotas for new models and holiday season purchases, they have repeatedly come together at the dormitory, workshop, or factory level to voice demands or to stage protests. Access to internet and social networking technology also enables workers to disseminate open letters and to tweet urgent appeals for support. The fragmentation of the Chinese working-class and the informalization of labor, however, is an unmistakable trend. I highlight that the employers’ search for cheaper and more easily disposable labor (such as agency workers and student interns) has coincided with continued increases in Chinese wages and implementation of a new labour legal regime that will have far reaching impact on workers’ rights and interests.

Thus, it is argued that whilst informalization is often seen as making collective action and solidarity more difficult, my ongoing field research demonstrates that informal workers are able to articulate their shared positions and common interests to resist injustices, despite the recent crackdown on labor activism. Self-organizing is difficult, but the desperate needs of informal workers to get higher wages and better conditions (or at least equal treatment) creates the possibility for them to organize themselves collectively.