PI­O­NEER

对话先锋

The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BYDAVIDDAWSON

Guo Yu is a so­ci­ol­ogy PH.D. can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park in the US. Dur­ing a re­cent re­search project in China which fo­cused on at­ti­tudes of mi­grant work­ers, Guo sought to ex­plore a more nu­anced look at their thoughts through an ethno­graphic ap­proach and found that stereo­types failed to rep­re­sent their com­plex at­ti­tudes.

CAN YOU BRIEFLY SUM­MA­RIZE YOUR RE­SEARCH GOALS? WHAT WERE SOME KEY IS­SUES YOU EX­PLORED IN YOUR IN­TER­VIEWS?

My goal was to in­ves­ti­gate how ru­ral mi­grant work­ers sub­jec­tively per­ceived their cur­rent sit­u­a­tions. Based on the­o­ries and schol­arly re­search, ru­ral mi­grant work­ers are seen as ex­ploited by cap­i­tal and dom­i­nated by the state. I wanted to know how the mi­grant work­ers them­selves looked at their own work and lives.

How do they feel about their lives and work? Are they up­set? What kind of fu­ture plans do they have, if any? What do they plan to do to achieve their goals? Dur­ing my 10 months of ethno­graphic re­search at two fac­to­ries, I was con­stantly sur­prised and puz­zled, be­cause what I learned from th­ese ru­ral mi­grant work­ers de­vi­ated sub­stan­tially from what I had imag­ined about ru­ral mi­grant work­ers in fac­to­ries. Based on the lit­er­a­ture, I had ex­pected to find un­happy ru­ral mi­grant work­ers who re­sented cap­i­tal­ist ex­ploita­tion and state dom­i­na­tion and who might be even an­gry or des­per­ate enough to con­sider or ac­tu­ally take le­gal or col­lec­tive ac­tions to fight for their in­ter­ests. But I found lit­tle of that. The ru­ral mi­grant work­ers I en­coun­tered were not par­tic­u­larly un­sat­is­fied or re­sent­ful. They did com­plain about their prob­lems, but it also in­cluded an element of un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance. And they seemed gen­er­ally con­tent with their work and lives and ex­pressed hope about the fu­ture. Most of the time, cap­i­tal­ist ex­ploita­tion or state dom­i­na­tion was not even their main con­cern at all.

HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR INTERVIEWEES? WERE THERE CHAL­LENGES IN SPEAK­ING CAN­DIDLY WITH THEM ABOUT IS­SUES AF­FECT­ING THEIR LIVES?

I gained ac­cess to both fac­to­ries through per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. The work­ers were gen­er­ally very open and friendly. They weren't interviewees, ex­actly. I used an ethno­graphic ap­proach, which in­cluded con­stant ob­ser­va­tion and many spon­ta­neous con­ver­sa­tions. In­ter­views were ac­tu­ally a small part. This also means that my study em­pha­sized un­der­stand­ing the work­ers' work­ing life as it was, in­stead of an­swer­ing pre­con­ceived tar­geted ques­tions.

FOR EX­AM­PLE?

There were var­ied views on many things, which defy easy stereo­types. Take wages for ex­am­ple. The ru­ral mi­grant work­ers at one of the two fac­to­ries I looked at,

So­lar Ex­cel­lence, had com­plaints about their wages, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. At So­lar Ex­cel­lence, wage re­form had been im­ple­mented a year be­fore I went there, which had raised the piece rate in­cen­tive while tak­ing away dou­ble-wage com­pen­sa­tion for over­time. Based on my in­ter­view with the HR man­ager, the orig­i­nal in­ten­tion of the wage re­form had been to en­cour­age pro­duc­tiv­ity dur­ing reg­u­lar work­ing hours and re­duce un­nec­es­sary over­time. But things did not work out as planned. The work­ers com­plained about piece rate wages be­ing de­ducted for no rea­son, which pre­vented them from be­ing fully mo­ti­vated to work ef­fi­ciently dur­ing the day­time, and over­time was still forced upon them most of the time. How­ever, in­stead of unan­i­mously con­demn­ing the fac­tory au­thor­i­ties for pay­ing them un­fairly and declar­ing a la­bor­ers' war against cap­i­tal, the work­ers in So­lar Ex­cel­lence showed a di­ver­sity of opin­ions and ac­tions based on their own per­spec­tives.

WHAT KINDS OF PER­SPEC­TIVES?

Well, Xu, a 26-year-old plum­ber, was con­vinced that his monthly wage was lower than his ex­pec­ta­tions be­cause the depart­ment man­ager did not fa­vor him and recorded his out­put care­lessly. Xu's team leader, 35-year-old Yang, on the other hand, pointed to the in­evitable prob­lem of a hi­er­ar­chi­cal bu­reau­cratic sys­tem, and he be­lieved that the piece rate plan was fair in its ori­gin but got all messed up in the process of pass­ing down through lay­ers of man­age­ment. Sim­i­larly, Gao blamed the chief man­ager for despot­i­cally de­ter­min­ing the work­ers' wages and over­time; the fac­tory owner must have had good in­ten­tions but was not sup­posed to mi­cro-man­age th­ese kinds of af­fairs on the shop floor. An in­ter­est­ing opin­ion was also ex­pressed by a 28-year-old elec­tri­cian, Zhou, who laughed at the in­dis­cre­tion of the fac­tory, as over­time com­pen­sa­tion was re­quired by law while piece rates were not, thus the fac­tory should have saved cost through low­er­ing the piece rate wages rather than can­cel­ing over­time com­pen­sa­tion. Also think­ing in terms of the fac­tory's in­ter­ests, an as­sem­bler, 28-year-old Li, ex­pressed that it was un­for­tu­nate but in­evitable that ev­ery en­ter­prise should try to cut costs in or­der to sur­vive mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion.

WHAT WERE THE PROSPECTS FOR WORK­ERS IN TH­ESE FAC­TO­RIES?

My study does show that cer­tain Chi­nese en­ter­prises are get­ting stronger and more com­pet­i­tive on the global mar­ket, and Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ers are no longer just about low-value-added un­skilled la­bor sit­u­ated at the bot­tom of the com­mod­ity chain. The so­lar power com­pany I stud­ied was a good ex­am­ple. It made rel­a­tively good prof­its, it's mod­ern and it of­fered its work­ers rather good work­ing con­di­tions. On the other hand, cer­tain in­dus­tries are dy­ing in China, as the gar­ment fac­tory I stud­ied showed—since I fin­ished the study, it has closed down. At the same time, as the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion of the ru­ral mi­grant work­ers im­proves, they are no longer so tol­er­ant of low pay­ing, tough phys­i­cal la­bor. As more and more of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of gar­ment fac­tory work­ers leav­ing the in­dus­try, there will be no next gen­er­a­tion. As for the older work­ers, they mostly look for­ward to re­tir­ing or go­ing back to work in their home­towns. And some of them are no longer as poor as they used to be, so they are no longer as des­per­ate for this work. Be­ing able to work while main­tain­ing good spir­its seems to be more im­por­tant than be­ing able to make sev­eral hun­dred more yuan. As for the young girls, they nor­mally find work­ing in gar­ment fac­to­ries too ex­haust­ing and that the pay is too low, so few of them bother to learn the skills to­day. They pre­fer work­ing in ser­vice in­dus­tries.

HOW ARE CHINA'S LARGE NUM­BER OF LEFT-BE­HIND CHIL­DREN AF­FECT­ING THE DE­CI­SIONS AND EM­PLOY­MENT PROSPECTS OF THEIR PAR­ENTS?

From what I could see, the ru­ral mi­grant work­ers pri­or­i­tize their work. So they tend to leave their chil­dren in the coun­try­side if there are other care­tak­ers like their grand­par­ents. Some work­ers also take their chil­dren with them in the cities, if they can af­ford it. In­ter­est­ingly, male mi­grant work­ers in par­tic­u­lar ex­pressed that they couldn't bear the idea of be­ing sep­a­rated from their kids. For the work­ers, both fe­male and male, who had to leave their chil­dren be­hind, they tended to feel guilty. It may not in­flu­ence their work, but it cer­tainly in­flu­ences their psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing in a neg­a­tive way. At the same time, fe­male work­ers' work is in­flu­enced when they have chil­dren. The women usu­ally quit their job be­fore get­ting mar­ried and giv­ing birth in the coun­try­side. They wait for their kids to get older and then come out to work again. Be­cause their la­bor is eas­ily re­place­able, they usu­ally can't go back to the place they quit. So they have to find a new job some­where.

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