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The challenge of labour in China: strikes and the changing labour regime in global factories

By Chris King-Chi Chan

Abstract

China has become a global manufacturing centre with its `unlimited' supply of low cost and unorganised peasant workers. The potential of Chinese workers to change this condition has significant meaning for global labour politics. This study offers an ethnographic portrait and a sociological account of the transformation of labour relations and labour politics in China from 2004 to 2008 focusing on workers' strikes, community and organisation. It reveals how wages and working conditions are bargained, fought over, and determined in the global factories. Geographically this study concerns the city of Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), where labour conflict is most prevalent. Historically, it is traced back to the late 1970s to explore how the pattern of labour conflict has changed over time. The author spent one year conducting participant observation based in a grass-roots labour non-governmental organisation (NGO) in an industrial zone from 2005 to 2006. A multi-case method is used to document workers' stories to strive for a higher wage and better working conditions and their relationships with management, NGOs, the trade union and the local state. The author suggests that benefiting from an expanding labour market, an escalating dynamic community, and the skilled and supervisory workers' network, workplace struggle has exerted significant challenges to the state authorities and the global capital. The capital responded to these challenges by work intensification, production rationalization, expansion and relocation. The local state reacted by better enforcement of the labour regulations and steady enhancement of the minimum wage rate, while the central state initiated a new round of labour legislation to better protect workers. The author refers to the changing labour regime in this stage as `contested despotism'. Its potential to give way to a new form of factory regime is dependent on the possibility of effective workplace trade unionism

Topics: HD
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:2374

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