Photo Credit: Courtesy of Guo Yu

In the Minds of Migrant Workers

A sociological study into the hopes and fears of one of China’s most vulnerable groups

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.

In the Minds of Migrant Workers is a story from our issue, “Taobao Town.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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