Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues2021/3Book ReviewsSIU, Kaxton. 2020. Chinese Migran...

Book Reviews

SIU, Kaxton. 2020. Chinese Migrant Workers and Employer Domination: Comparisons with Hong Kong and Vietnam. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Éric Florence
p. 73-74

Full text

1In this volume, Kaxton Siu sets out to investigate whether “China’s export-led industrialisation” (p. 14) provides a unique pattern of economic development. Bringing together more than ten years of research, Siu draws from a wealth of sources: from his own quantitative surveys and ethnographic observation to oral history (by female garment workers in Hong Kong between 1960 and the 1980s). He also thoroughly engages with the insights of the history and sociology of labour, of studies of labour in post-socialist China, as well as with some of the literature on domination and resistance, adopting a Weberian “strategic-relational” approach to study changing forms of domination on workers.

  • 1 In her seminal work on rural workers in post-socialist China, Anita Chan (2001) characterised this (...)

2Throughout the book, he provides a nicely fleshed-out argument for a global shift of paradigm characterising the forms of domination and accumulation regimes at work in South China from the first two decades of economic reforms to the beginning of the twenty-first century. The first phase (1980s and 1990s)1 corresponds to what he terms “state-endorsed exploitation by non-enforcement of laws” (p. 15), while the second phase, starting in the early 2000s, saw the emergence of “conciliatory despotism” (p. 16). The theoretical distinction between “coercive” and “non-coercive” forms of domination constitutes a “spectrum of modes of domination” (p. 14) that can change according to time and space, and which is also very much dependent on how specific politico-institutional and economic configurations articulate with the global politics of capitalist production. It should be noted that these two phases and related paradigms ought not to be thought of as mutually exclusive, but rather as being reconfigured under changing local and global conditions.

3Siu delves into the changing dynamics of subjugation of rural workers in South China by economic, state, and patriarchal power in the garment industry, adopting a comparative perspective with the fate of garment workers in Hong Kong and Vietnam. The combination of historical and geographic comparative perspectives developed by the author sheds fresh light on how various modes of domination over workers have developed over time and space (p. 13). As the author explains, the structure of the book “follows the expansion of global capitalism in East and Southeast Asia over the last five decades as the sites of export garment production developed in Hong Kong, shifted to China, and then expanded to Vietnam” (p. 8). In Chapter One (p. 1-22), drawing from oral history and his own personal memories, he depicts, for instance, how female workers in the Hong Kong garment industry went from being employed by a booming export-led garment manufacturing sector from the 1960s to the 1980s, to undergoing a process of “deskilling” and “casualisation” from the mid-1980s on, as more and more factories moved to China’s Pearl River Delta to take advantage of huge pools of rural labour and the extremely pro-growth conditions offered to investors. Hong Kong female workers then performed only occasional high-quality orders for labour contractors, and were later completely forced out of the profession and had to engage in low-paid service labour.

  • 2 Subcontracting has become even more widespread with the advent of the platformisation of the Chines (...)

4One of the many merits of this volume is the way it always seeks to examine how the local organisation of production and labour markets articulate in various ways with the demands of global production chains, and this is where the comparative lens pursued can be insightful. For instance, Siu shows in Chapter Four (p. 85-114) how during rush seasons (typically in November and December) major companies subcontract part of the production to low-end small factories employing older workers under very poor conditions so as to meet the conditions of “just-in-time” orders exerted by retailers and brand-name companies.2 In Vietnam (Chapter Six, p. 155-196), however, such subcontracting is too difficult to implement and does not prevail, and large companies intensify production by forcing workers to perform overtime work and thereby meet the orders during rush seasons (p. 188). In Vietnam, Siu shows, the labour law itself, being less than elaborate by international standards, enables high levels of exploitation and intensification of production. In China, however, as much scholarship has shown, while the law itself is quite developed, it is the sheer lack of will from the state to implement it that enables pro-capital production regimes.

5Siu’s argument on the marginalisation of the “dormitory labour regime” (Smith and Pun 2006) and the greater agency acquired by the second generation of migrant workers brings in the interesting issues of the work-leisure and work-family balance, and of the capacity of workers to gain a hold on some of the space and time in the workplace as well as in their everyday lives. One of the main arguments developed by Siu is that the space and time that migrant workers have gained outside the workplace (in particular at the level of housing and of the family), contrary to Marx’s argument that workers’ lives at the site of production shape their lives outside factories, have contributed to somewhat reducing the length of the working day and altering the labour regimes and domination processes in the workplace (p. 7). Siu is quite optimistic as he notes in his introduction, “In the short run, the structure of domination is reproduced, but in the long run the status quo in the power relations is reshaped” (p. 2). In this way, perhaps, he sheds light on a core element of the resilience of the Party-state, which is to be somewhat responsive to societal demands while at the same time not altering the pro-growth policy choices and politico-institutional arrangements that have so efficiently generated economic growth.

6On the whole, this very well-written volume will be of great interest for both scholars and students in labour and China studies, and represents an insightful addition to earlier scholarship on the politics of labour in South China by scholars such as Anita Chan, Lee Ching-Kwan, Pun Ngai, Tan Shen, Jenny Chan, Chris King-chi Chan, and Jack Linchuan Qiu, to name just a few.

Top of page

Bibliography

CHAN, Anita. 2001. China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Armonk: ME Sharp.

FAN, Lulu. 2021. “The Forming of E-platform-driven Flexible Specialisation: How E-commerce Platforms Have Changed China’s Garment Industry Supply Chains and Labour Relations.” China Perspectives 124: 29-37.

SMITH, Chris, and Ngai PUN. 2006. “The Dormitory Labour Regime in China as a Site for Control and Resistance.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 17(8): 1456-70.

Top of page

Notes

1 In her seminal work on rural workers in post-socialist China, Anita Chan (2001) characterised this phase as that of “workers under assault.”

2 Subcontracting has become even more widespread with the advent of the platformisation of the Chinese economy, as it has further increased the reliance of production on the demands of consumers. This is shown neatly by Fan Lulu (2021).

Top of page

References

Bibliographical reference

Éric Florence, « SIU, Kaxton. 2020. Chinese Migrant Workers and Employer Domination: Comparisons with Hong Kong and Vietnam. London: Palgrave Macmillan  », China Perspectives, 2021/3 | 2021, 73-74.

Electronic reference

Éric Florence, « SIU, Kaxton. 2020. Chinese Migrant Workers and Employer Domination: Comparisons with Hong Kong and Vietnam. London: Palgrave Macmillan  », China Perspectives [Online], 2021/3 | 2021, Online since 01 September 2021, connection on 25 September 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/12360 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.12360

Top of page

About the author

Éric Florence

Éric Florence is Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Sciences Research, and at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, the University of Liège. Department of East Asian Studies, Place du 20 Août, 8, 4000 Liège, Belgium (Eric.Florence@uliege.be).

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

© All rights reserved

Top of page
  • Logo CEFC – Centre d’études français sur la Chine contemporaine
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search