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Feminist Economics 13(3 – 4), July/October 2007, 239 – 258
Pun Ngai
This article discusses the dormitory labor system, a specific Chinese labor system
through which the lives of Chinese women migrant workers are shaped by the
international division of labor. This dormitory labor system is a gendered form
of labor use that underlies the boom of export-oriented industrial production in
China, which has been further boosted by China’s accession to the World Trade
Organization. Combining work and residence under the dormitory labor
system, production and daily reproduction of labor are reconfigured for the
sake of global production, with foreign-invested or privately owned companies
controlling almost all daily reproduction of labor. Drawing upon the findings of
a 2003 – 4 case study of an electronics factory in South China, this paper
analyzes the operation of the dormitory labor system, detailing both its role in
increasing output and profits and its role in supporting workers’ resistance to
their employers.
China, dormitory labor system, global production, migrant labor,
women workers
JEL Codes: F16, F1, F
This paper discusses the dormitory labor system, a Chinese labor system
through which the international division of labor shapes the lives of women
migrant workers. We understand this dormitory labor system as a gendered
form of labor use that fuels global production in newly industrialized
regions, especially in South China. Since the establishment of four Special
Economic Zones (SEZs) in South China in the late 1970s, the new exportoriented industrialized regions, dominated by foreign-invested companies,
have relied on the use of migrant laborers, mostly women, who work in the
factories and live in the factory dormitories. All companies that employ
migrant workers – irrespective of the company’s industrial sector and
whether it is domestic or foreign-invested – provide accommodation to
Feminist Economics ISSN 1354-5701 print/ISSN 1466-4372 online Ó 2007 IAFFE
DOI: 10.1080/13545700701439465
these workers. By combining work and residence, production and daily
reproduction are hence reconfigured for the sake of global capital use, with
daily reproduction of labor almost entirely controlled by foreign-invested or
privately owned companies.
China’s dormitory labor system is not a new arrangement under
capitalism; the provision of dormitories for workers has a long history
both in Western and Eastern contexts of industrialization (Gail Hershatter
1986; Chris Smith 2003; Chris Smith and Pun Ngai 2006). However, the
Chinese dormitory labor system is unique in that dormitories, located on
the factory compound or close by, are available to all workers and
industries. This widespread availability of factory dormitories facilitates the
Chinese labor system’s reliance on short-tenure migrant labor. The state
still plays a substantial role in shaping Chinese labor markets, regulating
labor mobility from rural to urban industrial areas, and providing housing
to migrant workers. In most of the newly industrialized towns, the Chinese
state provides the dormitories for the factory owners to rent, but some firms
build their own dormitories. Housing provision is not for families, so factory
owners are not interested in the reproduction of the next generation of
laborers. Instead, they focus on maximizing the utilization of temporary,
migrant, and contract labor by controlling the daily reproduction of their
labor power.
The state does not permit the migrant working class to stay in the city,
unless the workers have employment to support their temporary
residence. Dormitories not only facilitate the temporary attachment of
laborers to companies and the massive circulation of labor, but they also
constrain labor mobility since laborers need these attachments to remain
in the city. Through the employer’s integration of working and living
spaces and the state’s regulation of migration, wage increases are
suppressed and the workday is lengthened. This creates a hybrid,
transient workforce that circulates between the factory and countryside
and is dominated by employers’ control over housing and state controls
over residency permits.
Among the waves of internal migrant workers arriving in the industrial
cities over the past two decades, young women have been among the first to
be picked up by the new export-oriented industries. Young women
constitute a high proportion of the factory workers, making up over 70
percent of the total workforce in the garment, toy, and electronics
industries (Ching Kwan Lee 1998; Pun Ngai 2005a). Their gender, in
addition to their youth and rural migrant status, is an integral part of
China’s export-led industrialization facilitating production for the
world market. This gendered process of proletarianization echoes the
feminization of labor use and the growth of new factory-towns under
the export-led industrialization model prevalent in Latin America and Asia
since the 1960s (Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson 1981; June Nash and
Maria P. Ferna´ndez-Kelly 1983; Aihwa Ong 1987; Frederic Deyo 1989;
Dorinne Kondo 1990; Lee 1998; Leslie Sklair 2001).
This article draws from a 2003 – 4 case study of an electronics factory in
Shenzhen, Guangdong, in South China to provide a detailed discussion of
the operation of the dormitory labor system underlying the booming
export-oriented industrial production of China that has been further
boosted by its accession into the World Trade Organization. The paper also
looks at dormitories as sites of control and resistance and shows how the
dormitory labor system simultaneously provides workers with opportunities
to resist management practices and achieve some victories in improving
working conditions. But, ultimately, the temporary nature of the employment contracts and the workers’ disempowered status as temporary urban
residents limits their ability to fundamentally challenge the conditions of
work and dormitory living.
China is already well known as a ‘‘world factory,’’ attracting transnational
corporations (TNCs) from all over the world, especially from Hong Kong,
Taiwan, Japan, the US, and Western Europe. Guangdong Province in
southern coastal China is an industrial hub for global production. Clothing,
textiles, and electronics are the major industries involved in export
processing work in China, as in other developing countries. Guangdong is
the largest production base for these exports, creating labor-intensive jobs
for workers, particularly for women migrant workers in major cities such as
Shenzhen, Dongguan, Foshan, Zhongshan, and Guangzhou. The economy
of Guangdong grew an average of more than 14 percent per year during
the 1990s. In 2006, Guangdong attracted US$14.5 billion in foreign direct
investment (FDI), approximately one-fourth of the country’s total and a
seventeen percent increase from the previous year. Its total trade amounted
to US$520 billion, about one-third of the country’s total (China Daily 2007).
This rapid expansion of export-oriented production was associated with a
sharp rise in jobs with private, foreign-owned, and joint-venture enterprises
that now dot the coastal cities of China. Since the late 1970s, decollectivization of agriculture has generated a massive labor surplus in rural areas.
At the same time, the central government has facilitated an unprecedented
surge in internal rural-to-urban migration by partially loosening the
restrictions of hukou, the household registration system.1 These changes
and the opportunities in the cities have resulted in massive waves of rural –
urban migrants, forming a new working class of internal rural migrant
laborers (the dagong class) in contemporary China (Pun 2005a). Until the
early 1990s, the consensus was that the number of floaters was about 70
million nationwide.2 The Fifth National Population Census of China in
2000 estimated that there were over 120 million internal migrant workers in
cities, while other estimates ranged from 100 to 200 million persons
(William Lavely 2001: 3; Arianne M. Gaetano and Tamara Jacka 2004; Zai
Liang and Ma Zhongdong 2004).3 In the early 2000s, women constituted a
considerable proportion of the rural migrant population, estimated to be
around 40 percent of migrants nationally and 60 percent (or 6 million) in
the Guangdong region (Ye Zhang 2002).
TNCs and their subcontractors recruit millions of rural migrants to work
in China’s export-processing industries. In the late 1970s, the development
of the SEZs along the southeastern coast was one of the first major
economic reforms of the period. Within a few years, similar zones were set
up in other parts of China, called export-oriented industrial zones or
technology development zones. These zones, similar to export-processing
zones in other developing economies, harnessed young workers, particularly unmarried women, who are often the lowest paid and most compliant
laborers (see Lee 1998; Pun Ngai 1999, 2005a; Gaetano and Jacka 2004).
These women migrant workers are often called dagongmei, a new
gendered labor identity produced during the emergence of private and
transnational capital in post-socialist China. Dagongmei embraces multiple
meanings and denotes a new kind of labor relationship fundamentally
different from Mao’s period. Dagong means ‘‘working for the boss’’ or
‘‘selling labor,’’ connoting commodification and a capitalist exchange of
labor for wages (Pun 2005a). In post-socialist China, labor, especially the
alienated (wage) labor that was supposedly emancipated by the Chinese
Revolution, is once again sold to the capitalists, and this time under the
auspices of the state. Unlike the Maoist working-class gongren, ‘‘worker,’’
which carried the highest status in the socialist rhetoric of Mao’s day,
dagong signifies a lesser identity – that of a hired hand – in a context shaped
by the rise of market factors in labor relations and hierarchy. Both terms –
gongren and dagong – are gender neutral and used for both women and
men. The new term, dagongmei, however, is specific for young women. Mei
means younger sister. It denotes not only gender, but also marital status –
mei is unmarried and young and thus often of a lower status (Pun 2005a).4
Why have so many women left their rural homes in search of city-based
waged labor? Any rigorous response to this question must unfold along two
related levels of analysis. The first level of analysis is structural: owing to the
deep rural – urban divide, rural authorities have submitted to the central
government’s direction and have, thus, agreed to inter-provincial labor
cooperation and program initiatives to maximize urban economic growth
(Dorothy J. Solinger 1999: 94). Since late 1991, the bordering provinces of
Hunan and Guangxi have systematically exported their peasant labor to
Guangdong. In exchange, these provinces benefited from remittances sent
back by rural migrant workers. This is also the case of the populous,
impoverished Sichuan province, which is a considerable distance from
Guangdong. Increasing competition in the global market for agricultural
products and the resulting adverse price effects due to WTO accession have
added to the pressure for out-migration (see Denise Hare, Li Yang, and
Daniel Englander [2007] and Junjie Chen and Gale Summerfield [2007] in
this volume). As a result, provincial labor policies assure a continuous
replenishment of internal migrant laborers to the global-production
powerbases in the coastal cities of South China. State initiatives support
the labor needs of industry and facilitate labor supply flow to the global
production sites. The government’s labor-management offices usually
screen young, female applicants from inland provinces and arrange for
transportation to send rural women directly to the coastal factory sites in
return for earning management fees on a per capita basis from the
company (Ching Kwan Lee 2007).
The second level of analysis examines the individual and familial level, at
which rural people contend with low prices for agricultural products in the
post-WTO accession era and limited educational and village-employment
opportunities – indeed, these last two challenges are particularly acute for
females. Many young rural women have no choice but to begin migrating as
dagongmei in their late teens. Some rural women also aspire to escape
arranged marriages, familial conflicts, and patriarchal oppression. Still
others want to widen their horizons and experience modern life and
cosmopolitan consumption in cities (Lee 1998; Pun 2005a). In sum,
personal decisions in out-migration are heavily mediated and strongly
affected by both sociocultural factors and economic concerns.
However, the state usually identifies rural migrants as temporary
residents who work in the city and lack a formal urban hukou. Although
enforcement of the old hukou system has relaxed since the late 1990s, the
restrictions on welfare benefits, housing, and education of children are still
mostly in place and contribute to the exploitative mechanisms of labor
appropriation in the cities. This newly forming working class is typically
denied permanent roots and legal identities in the city. The hukou system
and its labor controls construct the ambiguous identity of rural migrant
labor while simultaneously deepening and obscuring the economy’s
exploitation of this huge population. Hence, this subtle and multi-faceted
marginalization of a vast swath of the rural labor supply has created a
contested, if not a deformed, citizenship that has disadvantaged Chinese
migrant workers attempting to transform themselves into urban workers.
Dislocated in the cities, migrant labor is distinguished by its transient
nature. China’s overall economy, while needing the labor of the rural
population, does not need the city-based survival of that population beyond
the daily reproduction of the migrant worker. A worker, especially a female
worker, will usually spend three to five years as a wage laborer in an
industrial city before getting married. Most women have to return to their
rural homes to marry because it is difficult to find a partner in the city.
Rural communities have long exercised – and have long been expected to
exercise – the extended planning of life-cycle activities such as marriage,
procreation, and family. Although the costs of daily reproduction of the
individual workers are partially borne by the factory while the workers are
employed, reproduction of the next generation of labor is left to the rural
villages. The cost of reproducing the labor force includes the costs of
bearing, rearing, and educating children; healthcare; and eldercare. These
activities benefit industrial development in urban areas, and their cost is
only partially offset by remittances. As more and more segments of the
population have entered the labor force as migrant workers, the dormitory
labor system that facilitates this process has become an essential component
of the changes in post-socialist China.
Since the early 1980s, China has refashioned an old form of labor use into a
hybrid form of work-residence that aids in the daily reproduction of labor
and embodies labor control and resistance. While in the past domestic
industries in urban and rural areas and township and village enterprises
commonly provided dormitory accommodations for workers from other
localities, their provision by factories that produce for the global market is a
recent phenomenon. As millions of migrant workers pour into industrial
towns and cities, the provision of dormitories has become a necessity for
these enterprises.
Factory dormitories were introduced in China in the early twentieth
century on a limited scale. In a study of cotton and silk workers in Tianjin
from 1900 to the 1940s, Hershatter (1986: 165 – 6) describes how foreignowned companies began to introduce dorms to lower costs through the
feminization and use of migrant workers. Workers, however, were not
willing to stay in company-provided dormitories if they had the choice of
living with their relatives or co-villagers in nearby residential areas. As
Hershatter points out:
Had they been able to, the Tianjin millowners would have made the
factory a closed environment, serviced by company institutions and
secured by company guards. But workers voted with their feet,
resisting the attempt to turn housing into a ‘‘tool of discipline.’’
(1986: 165)
Dormitories therefore became the preserve of single, migrant women
workers, those without family or local connections, and workers were
prevented from leaving and locked in at night (Hershatter 1986). A similar
study by Emily Honig (1986) of female cotton workers in Shanghai in the
1930s also notes that the contractors hired thugs to guard the dormitories
and accompany women workers, even on their holidays and days off, and
that women had to share beds and endure sexual abuse from contractors,
overcrowding, and poor sanitation.
The prominent labor institution from the socialist period was the danwei
system. Unlike the pre-Revolution dormitory system, the danwei system
conferred greater status upon an individual worker. In this system, the stateowned enterprises provided accommodations to workers and their families
as a matter of workers’ rights.5 The system was both an economic and social
institution set up to provide a long-term commitment to the employees,
some of them even providing kindergarten and primary school, medical
clinics, and common canteens to the workers and their family members
staying in the housing unit.
The decline of the danwei system in the 1990s left an institutional vacuum
that allowed a remodeled dormitory labor system to develop in the new
export-processing zones. The dormitory labor system is hence the hybrid
outgrowth of China’s global integration combined with the legacies of state
socialism. What is striking about today’s China is that due to a combination
of state controls (the lingering hukou system), extensive provision of factory
dorms, and shortages of independent accommodation, the dormitory labor
system is pervasive. The new dagong subjects are not from the local or urban
area where workplaces are based, but come as inter-provincial migrants for
a temporary sojourn in a factory.
In this reconfigured system, workers’ mobility is shaped by two
conditions: peasant-workers’ ‘‘freedom’’ to sell their labor to global and
private capital that is allowed in post-socialist China, and state laws on
population and the remaining limits on mobility through the hukou system.
These laws attempt to restrain workers’ freedom of mobility in order to
meet the demands of transnational capital as well as China’s urban
development. This double social conditioning is basically a paradoxical
process: the freedom of the rural migrants to work in the industrial urban
areas is checked by social constraints preventing their permanent
settlement in the cities.
On finishing their labor contracts, which usually last one to two years, the
workers must return to their place of birth or find another temporary
employment contract (Andrew Walder 1986; Lee 1998; Solinger 1999;
Pun 2005a), again to be confined in the dormitory labor system. Factory
dormitories thus attract migrant workers for the short term, and
accommodation is not the means for cultivating a long-term or protracted
relationship between the individual firm and the individual …
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