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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 2: Livelihood Struggles and Market Reform: (Un)making Chinese Labour after State Socialism

14 Jun 2005

  • Author(s): Ching Kwan Lee

The surge of China as the workshop of the world is due in part to a fundamental restructuring of the labour force. Massive unemployment in the state industrial sector is taking place simultaneously with momentous migration of peasants into global factories. Both the unmaking and the making of the Chinese working class are heavily shaped by the state.

The central problem for Chinese workers is not new labour and welfare systems, but wide discrepancies between stipulation and implementation of these new policies. There are two contradictions inherent in the strategy of Chinese reform. Firstly, the imperative to rely on local accumulation to fuel marketization clashes with the imperative to maintain legitimacy by providing a basic level of justice and welfare for the most disadvantaged. Local state agents are more interested in the former than the latter, especially when they can count on central government financial intervention to maintain social stability. The second contradiction in Chinese reform that is conducive to uneven protection of labour rights has to do with the illiberal nature of the Chinese legal system. The state uses the law as a means of controlling society, while allowing itself to remain mostly unrestrained by it. When it is not in the interest of the local officials to enforce labour regulations, there is hardly enough countervailing authority—from the judiciary, for instance—to preserve the sanctity of the law.

Facing gendered disadvantages in the labour market, and under a welfare-entitlement regime based on employment rather than universal citizenship, female workers are likely to fall through the cracks of the new social safety net. For young female migrants toiling in global factories, the lack of maternity benefits forces them to truncate their factory careers to give birth and take care of children and elderly kin. Recent legal changes in land use rights may potentially encroach on women’s equal access to land use, with grave long-term implications for female migrant workers’ livelihood security. However, gender bias does not begin to capture the plight of millions of Chinese workers during the reform period. Middle-aged workers in the state sector, whether male or female, confront age discrimination, and migrant workers of both genders suffer from their caste-like status of being a rural resident. The author finds that unpaid wages and pensions will continue to plague the lives of both men and women in the working class, for as long as the legal system and the government fail to enforce Labour Law.

Ching Kwan Lee is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, USA.

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