Currently, 2.5 billion people are in the midst of migrating within China – the majority of these are rural workers returning home from their factory jobs in the cities. February marks a time of excitement and celebration as the largest annual migration stirs lunar New Year into action.
As a new cycle begins, let’s reflect upon the changes this year has brought to the lives of migrant workers in China. The world economy continues to shift, and China is increasingly being represented as a fast growing economy. China’s economy stands in contrast to the (formerly) cited world super-powers of the United States and Japan who have both just received warnings from the IMF about their overwhelming debt loads.
The Chinese economy has been built partially on the supply of cheap labour that it has been able to provide to the world. While China enjoys overall economic growth, and consumers elsewhere enjoy the low prices provided on goods manufactured in China, companies have been long criticized for their poor labour standards. The lives of migrant workers have been further complicated by the Chinese Houku system which has amplified sharp divides between rural and urban Chinese citizens.
However, have the tides begun to turn? Recently, news stories have exploded about labour shortages and wage increases for labourers working in the Chinese manufacturing sector. Along with an increase in wages, employees in some regions have been able to appoint union representatives and benefit from other incentives. All of this seems like good news for migrant workers, right? Unlikely. As they have always done, many manufacturers are simply moving operations. In some cases to other locations in China, in other cases to India, Mexcio, or even back to the United States. Rising Chinese wages has also been a story for some time. Overall price inflation is also taking its toll on consumers within China.
The role of Chinese migrant workers in the lives of most of our students is obvious – just have them check the many consumer labels that surround them (sitting in many classrooms its easy to see the ‘made in china’ label on electronics, clothing, pens, pencils, and so on). There is some great ethnography out there that can be matched with current news articles to help students better understand what anthropology has to offer in comprehending the global economy, and their own role in creating and being a part of the social and cultural consequences of mass production.
While it takes guiding your students through the theoretical aspects of the ethnography, Made in China by Pun Ngai provides a good discussion of female migrant workers (or dagongmei) in China. Pun Ngai also has several articles available online, as well as a radio interview. In addition to her formal academic work, Pun Ngai organizes an NGO that works towards better human rights for factory workers. Feng Xu, a political economist, also offers detailed research on the plight of migrant workers in China.
Factory Girls is an account written by journalist Leslie Chang. While this book needs to be coupled with ethnographic sources and a strong anthropological framework, it provide an accessible and engaging account for anthropology students.
Two films are useful when studying this topic. The first is China Blue which highlights the pressures factories face to manufacture goods for Western companies. These pressures flow onto the workers. The second is Manufactured Landscapes which examines the manner in which China has been physically and socially transformed through economic restructuring.
The story of China’s role in the global economy is much more complex than the small slice of information provided here. However, the shifting position of migrant labour is worth following as we head into the year of the rabbit – a year that holds more unknown territory for the world economy.